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Government, Politics & Issues

Tiny Homes Shelter St. Louisans In Need, But $600K City Project Draws Criticism

St. Louis officials installed 50 tiny homes this past fall in the former St. Louis RV Park lot. Most have a nearly identical build with a door, window, heater, desk and bed.
Kayla Drake
/
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis officials installed 50 tiny homes this past fall in the former St. Louis RV Park lot. Most have a nearly identical build with a door, window, heater, desk and bed.

Three weeks ago, Shannon Bounds was sleeping in an abandoned warehouse that was partially burned down. Now she and her partner stay in one of the 50 new tiny homes assembled in a former RV park just northwest of downtown St. Louis.

“There's two beds in there for me and my fiance, and then there's a desk and then we got a TV,” she said. “It's kind of like a little cozy home.”

The multicolored rows of tiny homes have transformed into a small village in two months. All of the units in the $600,000 project, funded by federal coronavirus relief money, will be occupied by this week, city officials said.

But some homeless service providers say St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration should have spent the dollars on a different type of shelter with more services for residents and fewer restrictions.

To move in, as Bounds did, people need a referral from a case manager and a plan to leave in three to six months for permanent housing. The tiny home village, called Jefferson Spaces, is only meant to serve as transitional housing.

Bounds worked with three outreach workers to secure her spot in the village — a red-painted home with a yellow-trimmed door. She’s on a waiting list for an apartment.

“We just felt like this was an opportunity to try out a new, innovative shelter opportunity for people,” said Amy Bickford, St. Louis Homeless Services Division chief program manager. “For some people that are battling with behavioral health, or substance use, this gets them out of the environment where they're actively using.”

Taron Williams and his wife moved into their beige #20 tiny home a couple weeks ago. "I'm blessed," he says. The couple is waiting on a spot in permanent housing to open up. They were evicted from a tent encampment near the McGuire Moving & Storage building in early January.
Kayla Drake
Taron Williams and his wife moved into their beige shelter, tiny home No. 20, a couple of weeks ago. "I'm blessed," he says. The couple is waiting for permanent housing to open up. They were evicted from a tent encampment near the McGuire Moving & Storage building in early January.

Residents in the tiny homes are offered three bagged meals a day, Wi-Fi and job placement services. They are expected to “self-manage themselves, including their substance use and/or behavioral health,” according to an eligibility packet from Jefferson Spaces. The shelter does not provide services for substance use disorder or behavioral health issues. Residents can be removed for “unmanaged behaviors,” according to the packet.

Bickford said no residents have been asked to leave, but some have left voluntarily since the tiny homes opened in late December.

The city drafted the requirements with Magdala Foundation, a nonprofit it contracted to operate Jefferson Spaces. The foundation was the only provider to apply to manage the city-backed project.

Jefferson Spaces Resident, Service Provider Share Their Perspectives On New Tiny Homes
"St. Louis on the Air," host Sarah Fenske talks with Tom Mangogna of tiny home village operator Magdala Foundation and resident Florine McBride. She moved in just a couple weeks ago with her cat, Logan.

The tiny homes were the cheapest, best option for a new shelter, said Steve Conway, chief of staff for Krewson. He called the tiny homes “an incredibly efficient, effective way for taxpayers to move homeless people off of the streets.”

The former St. Louis RV Park lot already had electrical hookups and costs $20,000 a year to rent, Conway said. Residents have access to six public showers.

Longtime homeless advocate Teka Childress has 10 clients living in the homes. The Magdala Foundation has been flexible, she said, and lenient about its requirement that residents have a job before moving in.

“They've been really accommodating to the folks and in taking risks with the people I'm sending, because people are struggling,” she said.

Homelessness is a risk many more St. Louisans are facing this winter. Thousands of people in the region have lost jobs as part of the economic fallout from the pandemic. Courts have temporarily extended moratoriums on evictions through March 1. But those who have already lost housing find that space in shelters is more limited than usual because of social distancing and other coronavirus safety measures.

The city chose the former St. Louis RV Park on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive to assemble the tiny home village.
Kayla Drake
The city chose the former St. Louis RV Park at Jefferson Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive to assemble the tiny home village. The site has a security guard 24/7, cameras and a large gate at the entrance.

Krewson’s administration has taken criticism for evicting homeless people from multiple tent encampments during the pandemic and for spending federal relief money on the tiny homes. Some homeless advocates and local providers of homeless services say city officials should have instead funded safe haven shelters, which are open 24/7 to all homeless people without restrictions. St. Louis hasn’t had a shelter like that since the city forced the closure of New Life Evangelistic Center in April 2017.

This past fall, the city rejected an $880,000 proposal to build a safe haven shelter, saying it was too expensive. It could have housed 75 people at a time.

“They turned down incredibly innovative shelter safe haven projects that were submitted under the CARES Act, to fund a project that was the pet project of city managers,” said Tim Huffman, a board member for St. Patrick Center.

St. Patrick Center, Horizon North Housing, St. Louis Winter Outreach and Tent Mission STL scrambled to open a temporary safe haven two weeks ago to house dozens of homeless people, just as freezing temperatures hit the area. The city has committed to pay St. Patrick Center at least $12,000 for costs accrued, said the center’s CEO, Anthony D’Agostino.

The city has spent over $4.6 million in federal coronavirus aid on emergency shelters. It granted at least $2 million to existing shelters. The city has not disclosed how the rest of the money is allocated.

The tiny homes lot is leased for more than two years, so the community there will be sticking around for a while.

Krewson’s administration, however, is not. Her term ends this April, and she’s not seeking reelection. Whether St. Louis will continue to invest in the tiny homes will be up to the next mayor.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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