As Winter Worsens, City And Volunteer Groups Work Together To Help St. Louis' Homeless
St. Louis agencies and community organizations that work with the region’s homeless population are calling on city and county residents to volunteer time and donate supplies.
The groups are stretching resources to keep people warm and fed as weekend forecasts warn of more sleet, snow and freezing temperatures.
St. Louis Winter Outreach organizer Holly Schroeder said back-to-back weekends of wet winter weather have strained already-limited resources. Volunteers at the independent grassroots group connect homeless people with food, blankets, hats, gloves and beds.
Schroeder said more beds are needed now than usual, because people who might normally sleep outside are often driven by bad weather to find shelter. “There are not enough shelter beds available, normally, for all the people who are unhoused,” she said.
The City of St. Louis relies on community organizations and volunteers to supplement its network of shelters and to help people off the street. Irene Agustin, director of Human Services in St. Louis, said that volunteer work is crucial to sheltering the homeless during the winter.
“We can’t do this without our volunteers and without our community. It takes a lot of heart to really go out there, especially when it’s cold outside — frigidly cold,” Agustin said.
City and county resources
After several closures of St. Louis community groups and resource centers over the last decade, Winter Outreach and other volunteer groups are struggling to serve all those in need, according to Schroeder.
The New Life Evangelistic Center was the largest homeless shelter in the city when it closed in 2017. The city acknowledged last year that the closure left gaps in its ability to serve people who are homeless.
“I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and we have probably the worst crisis we’ve ever had,” Schroeder said.
Earlier this year, the city’s housing inventory counted 518 beds for homeless individuals, according to Agustin. However, not all of those beds are available every day. The count also excludes some forms of permanent and transitional housing that the city offers.
Open beds spaces fill quickly, especially when the weather gets cold. That’s why community organizations and pop-up shelters are so important, Agustin said.
Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office said volunteer groups like Winter Outreach provide between 200 and 300 overflow beds each night, although some have already been claimed. This weekend, the city anticipates community organizations will have 100 overflow beds available on Saturday, and 120 available on Sunday.
During cold and inclement weather, the city reserves MetroBuses to use as warming centers downtown until 7 p.m. United Way also coordinates a list of warming centers, including public libraries and recreation centers, open to the public.
St. Louis County also collaborates with St. Louis to provide homeless services, including 255 shelter beds, according to the county’s Department of Human Services director Yusef Scoggin. The department runs a 24-hour warming shelter with 48 beds on Page Avenue near Lindbergh Boulevard and partners with churches in the county to provide additional beds.
When available beds in St. Louis shelters fill up, Scoggin said St. Louis County places people in its shelters. And if county resources overflow, the department provides hotel and motel vouchers.
The work is especially important in the cold and snow. Last weekend, volunteers reported finding people huddled under blankets in the snow, or unable to walk to shuttle pickup points.
“Whenever there is precipitation on the ground or the snow is falling, there is real risk to the health and well-being of our homeless residents,” Scoggin said.
Not enough options
Some volunteers say they still need more resources to serve all the homeless people in the city.
Cathy Daniels, known as “Mama Cat,” feeds around 150 homeless people each Thursday with PotBangerz, a nonprofit that focuses on homeless outreach. On Thursday, PotBangerz prepared around an extra 80 meals for pop-up shelters that were busier than usual because of the weather.
Daniels said that while the city and county governments are working hard to help the homeless, there still aren’t enough resources allocated.
“It’s a human-rights crisis going on right now in St. Louis,” she said. “We’re not talking about individuals; We’re talking about systems that are failing the people.”
Last weekend, many public libraries were listed as warming centers — but most St. Louis Public Library branches closed Friday at 3 p.m. due to snowfall and stayed closed Saturday, according to a library representative. And on most days, the warming buses leave the streets after 7 p.m.
“What happens after 8 or 9 o’clock, when the buses are done?” she asked. “Where do they expect people to go?”
Daniels said she wants St. Louis to invest in more long-term, 24-hour walk-in shelter options. She’d also like to see the city encourage organizations and homeless people to rehabilitate vacant housing in the city, then use the properties to rehome people.
St. Louis human services director Agustin said the city is investing in programs that direct more people to permanent housing. Its partnerships with volunteer groups help the city house as many people as possible. The city offers transitional housing and other programs that work toward those goals.
In the meantime, groups like PotBangerz and Winter Outreach say that they continually need more volunteers and donations.
Winter Outreach tries to check as many parts of the city as possible to transport people to shelter.
“It sucks, because you know you didn’t get everybody,” Schroeder said. “You’re never going to get everybody. It’s impossible. But you try anyway.”
How to help
If you or someone you know needs shelter in the city or county, call the St. Louis Housing Helpline at 314-802-5444. Or, call United Way at 211.
In the city, go to St. Patrick Center at 800 N. Tucker to be connected with other resources.
Scoggin, the county’s director of human services, says that anyone who needs shelter can reach him directly at 314-267-0346.
Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin