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Government, Politics & Issues

Winter Homeless Deaths Expose Divisions Between St. Louis Officials And Providers

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File photo | David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
Residents of a homeless encampment in downtown St. Louis pack up their belongings on Jan. 11, a few weeks before the region experienced a deadly cold snap.

In February, Joshua Bruemmer curled up inside a sleeping bag on a patch of rocky ground by the railroad tracks in downtown St. Louis. He wore gray sweatpants over his jeans and wrapped himself in a thick blanket.

Police discovered his body during a deadly cold snap on Feb. 12, after a train conductor noticed he hadn’t moved in several days, according to a report from the city medical examiner. By the time Bruemmer was found, his body was “very cold and frozen to the touch,” the report noted.

This isn’t the only instance of a homeless person dying from the cold in St. Louis. An investigation by St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports found at least five people froze to death this winter alone — a minimum of one per month from last December through March.

It was the deadliest winter on record for homeless city residents since at least 2014, based on medical examiner records.

Though some of these deaths may have been difficult to prevent, service providers argue the city disregarded their pleas for a temporary, 24-hour winter shelter. Months earlier, homeless advocates warned city officials of a possible shortage of shelter beds in the winter, partly due to reduced capacities at small, volunteer-run spaces during the pandemic.

Some St. Louis service providers and advocates say the inadequate response this winter is the most recent example of a city that has done the bare minimum when it comes to caring for its homeless residents. The review of city budget documents found St. Louis has not dedicated any money from its general fund to homeless services in nearly two decades, relying instead on federal funds and putting more pressure on volunteers to fill the gaps. Nonprofit providers say scarce funding and the city’s unwillingness to follow their advice has strained their already-tense relationship.

Service providers want a greater say in how federal funding is spent and are taking concrete steps to loosen the city’s grip on what gets prioritized. Decision-making will become even more critical in the coming months, as the city prepares to spend millions in new federal funding on homeless programs.

“The City of St. Louis has the best of intentions, but unfortunately, that’s not enough,” said Anthony D’Agostino, CEO of St. Patrick Center, one of the largest shelters in St. Louis. “I understand the city is in charge, but good leadership is letting go of some of that power.”

D’Agostino is a member of the St. Louis Continuum of Care, an umbrella group of about 100 organizations that advises the city on issues related to homelessness. Leaders of the group voted unanimously in 2019 to become an independent nonprofit. Last month, they decided to hire a lawyer to file the paperwork — a move that could ultimately allow them to challenge the city for control of federal funding.

The new administration under St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones acknowledges the relationship with homeless service providers has deteriorated over the years and has said it is working to mend it.

‘Why is the city not doing this?’

The situation that unfolded this winter within the St. Louis homeless community illustrates the conflicting priorities of city officials and service providers, two groups often at odds over the best way to spend scarce resources.

On Dec. 29, St. Louis officials rejected two grant proposals that would have used federal dollars to create a temporary, 24-hour winter shelter. Three days later, a homeless man died of hypothermia — the third death this winter, according to city medical examiner reports.

The safe haven shelter was intended to care for homeless city residents most likely to die outside in the winter, like those struggling with mental illness and substance use disorders.

The divide between the city and homeless service providers became very public last May, after the previous administration dismantled two downtown encampments against the advice of federal health officials and leaders from the Continuum of Care. The new administration under St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones acknowledges there have been some "toxic relationships" and is trying to mend them.
David Kovaluk
The divide between the city and homeless service providers became very public last May, after the previous administration dismantled two downtown encampments against the advice of federal health officials and leaders from the Continuum of Care. The new administration under St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones acknowledges there have been some "toxic relationships" and said it is trying to mend them.

Providers say people may be hesitant to stay in shelters for a variety of reasons, but being forced to abstain from drugs or alcohol is often a major barrier. For those like Joshua Bruemmer, who had fentanyl in his system when he froze to death, low-barrier safe havens without specific requirements for entry can offer a place to stay.

Without a city-funded safe haven shelter in place, St. Louis nonprofits and volunteers were forced to take extreme steps when temperatures plummeted into the single digits in February.

Analysis: The Fracture Among St. Louis City, Service Providers After 5 Homeless Deaths During Winter
Listen as reporter Shahla Farzan talks with host Sarah Fenske.

They scrambled to come up with a last-minute solution that would keep people from dying outside. Using private donations, the grassroots effort created a walk-in shelter in downtown St. Louis, where homeless people could come and go as needed. They also paid for others to stay in hotel rooms.

Dozens of volunteers fanned out across the city, crisscrossing the frozen streets and searching vacant buildings and alleyways for people who were homeless. In two weeks, they helped shuttle more than 250 homeless city residents to shelters and hotels — including Kenny Gurney.

Gurney had been living in a vacant building in south St. Louis, sleeping on a pile of couch cushions he’d found in the alley.

The house didn’t have heat, so the 41-year-old dressed in multiple layers of clothing. “It was so cold, I could hardly roll a cigarette,” Gurney remembered, flexing his hands. “It felt like my fingers were frozen. That kind of cold will cut through you like a knife.”

He prefers to stay outside and avoid the “mayhem” of city shelters, he said, but as the temperatures fell, it became harder and harder to keep warm. Volunteers from Tent Mission STL, an outreach group created last year to help cover gaps in city services, found Gurney and drove him to a hotel, where he stayed for two weeks.

For many volunteers, the work was emotionally exhausting, said Lisa Winter with Tent Mission STL.

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Shahla Farzan
Lisa Winter was one of dozens of volunteers combing the St. Louis streets for homeless people during the February cold snap, sometimes driving until 3 or 4 in the morning. "You're making a desperate attempt to not have anybody die outside that night," she said.

Some nights, Winter said, she’d cram her Honda CRV with blankets and hand warmers and drive until 3 or 4 in the morning. “There’s nothing glamorous, glorious or pretty about it, because you know you’re making a desperate attempt to not have anybody die outside that night,” she said.

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Volunteers often shuttled people from shelter to shelter, Winter said, because they’d been banned in the past for alcohol, drug or behavioral issues.

She remembers one homeless man who was having what she describes as a “psychotic break.” Volunteers tried bringing him to multiple shelters, a hotel, even the emergency room. But he was too unstable, Winter said, so they took turns driving him around all night, worried he might freeze to death outside. “I just kept thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? Why is the city not doing this?’” she said.

The city eased some restrictions and waived the need for special permits to allow the 24-hour shelter to operate during the cold snap. But without steady funding, the safe haven shut down, leaving St. Louis without a permanent, no-barrier walk-in shelter.

It’s a dramatic reversal of priorities compared to previous administrations. City and county officials proposed opening six safe havens more than a decade ago, as part of a 2005 plan.

By choosing not to fund a safe haven shelter this winter, city officials disregarded the advice of service providers with decades of experience and put lives at risk, said Tim Huffman, an associate professor at St. Louis University who studies issues involving homelessness.

“From a relationship perspective and community engagement perspective, it's been a disaster,” Huffman said. “The city has chosen to go it alone when it didn’t have to, to be a bad partner when it didn’t have to, and the impact has been a profound additional stressor to people whose lives are already incredibly hard.”

But the fissures between the city and service providers began long before this winter. The divide became very public last May, after the previous administration dismantled two downtown encampments against the advice of federal health officials and leaders from the Continuum of Care.

Under former Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration, certain key decisions, such as where to open new shelters, were often made by staff in the mayor’s office who had little to no training in human services, Huffman said. The city also stopped sending a representative to meetings of the St. Louis Area Regional Commission on Homelessness, he added, a collaboration that includes seven surrounding counties.

A ‘Cadillac on a Volkswagen budget’

When it comes to homeless services in St. Louis, funding is the “major elephant in the room,” said D’Agostino of St. Patrick Center. Last year was the first time he remembers the city having enough money to dedicate to homeless services, but the big boost in pandemic-related funding is a temporary solution.

“Without the COVID money, it goes back to a situation where it's just underfunded,” D’Agostino said. “The state and local money is paltry compared to the issues we’re dealing with.”

St. Louis Public Radio reviewed the city’s budget documents and found the city stopped contributing any money from its general fund to homeless services in 2003. Since then, a local use tax has been one of the few sources of city dollars available for homeless services, accounting for about $1.3 million on average.

The federal government provides the lion’s share of the funding for homeless services in St. Louis, averaging about $11 million per year over the past decade.

But the amount of federal funding set aside for homeless shelters in St. Louis is a fraction of that amount, roughly $1.5 million. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates the vast majority of federal dollars be spent on other programs, such as permanent housing.

Tom Burnham has worked with Peter & Paul Community Services since the 1980s. His organization has become hesitant to bid on city contracts, he said, because the city is simply not paying enough. The nonprofit partnered with St. Patrick Center to run Biddle House, a city shelter north of downtown, when it opened in 2016.

“They wanted a Cadillac on a Volkswagen budget,” Burnham said of the city. “What we figured it would cost to operate the program for what they wanted, they were at least $500,000 off.” Without enough funding, Burnham said, it’s tough to hire experienced staff — which ultimately affects how successful the program is.

Four providers have helped run Biddle House in the past five years. In 2018, the city received zero bids from providers willing to run the shelter, ultimately turning to an Ohio-based nonprofit. Another nonprofit, City Hope, has since taken over the contract.

‘We have to work together’

The new administration plans to invest more resources in homeless services in the future — and repair broken relationships. During her mayoral campaign, Jones said St. Louis service providers needed a better partner in city government.

Days after taking office in April, Jones backed a spending plan that would shift $4 million from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to social services. Just over $1 million would go to the Department of Human Services to help hire an additional 15 social workers.

The city’s draft plan to allocate a fresh influx of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act would also dedicate $13 million to homeless services, including nearly $1.4 million for a safe haven shelter and $1.5 million for city-sanctioned “intentional encampments.”

The new administration is hoping to smooth over years of tense relations between the city and homeless service providers, said Nahuel Fefer, the mayor’s director of policy and development.

“The truth is that there have been some toxic relationships, and we're trying to mend those,” said Fefer, who previously worked with ArchCity Defenders, the legal advocacy group that sued the city last year in an effort to stop the downtown camp evictions. “Because at the end of the day, we don't have a choice about whether or not to work together. We have to work together.”

Fefer said regular meetings are now being held between members of the Continuum of Care and the Department of Human Services. No one from the Continuum of Care has approached him to discuss its plan to become an independent nonprofit, he said, adding that the city has “more urgent priorities.”

Service providers and homeless advocates in St. Louis say they’re cautiously optimistic that the relationship with the city will improve in the coming years.

But despite the promises of a new administration, the Continuum of Care is moving forward with its plans to become an independent nonprofit. The move would not be unusual; according to a 2014 national survey of more than 300 such organizations, 28% have become independent nonprofits.

Nonprofit status would allow them to apply for more private funding and outside grants — and potentially make a case to HUD that they should control federal funding for homeless programs in St. Louis. It’s unclear how city officials would respond to such a challenge, but Tom Burnham with Peter & Paul Community Services believes the city would fight to maintain control of federal funds.

“It gives them a certain power, and it's not just a monetary power,” said Burnham, who has seen six different mayors lead St. Louis. “By controlling those funds, that stifles an honest, open discussion.”

Tom Burnham has worked with Peter & Paul Community Services since the 1980s and said his organization has become hesitant to bid on contracts because the city isn't paying enough to cover the cost.
Shahla Farzan
Tom Burnham has worked with Peter & Paul Community Services since the 1980s and said his organization has become hesitant to bid on contracts because the city isn't paying enough to cover the cost.

A power struggle between the city and the Continuum of Care for control of federal funding could be years away, but some volunteers have more immediate concerns.

Despite the summer heat that now blankets the St. Louis region, Lisa Winter is nervous about what’s in store for homeless city residents when the weather turns cold again.

“I know there’s a lot of optimism with the new mayor coming in, and I share some of that optimism,” she said. “But this has been a historic pattern forever, that some folks are just disposable. I just keep waiting for the city to treat them as if they’re an important, valuable part of our community.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Follow Tom on Twitter: @tomscheck

Kayla Drake contributed reporting to this story.

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