© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science, Environment

St. Louis Homeless Services Hustle To Protect People From Deadly Cold And COVID-19

People staying at the downtown safe haven shelter in St. Patrick Center take a smoke break on Feb. 12, 2021 morning.
Kayla Drake
/
St. Louis Public Radio
People staying at the downtown safe haven shelter in St. Patrick Center take a smoke break on Friday morning.

Nearly every year, someone in St. Louis dies from the cold, local providers of homeless services say.

The coronavirus pandemic has made the issue more dire this winter. Social distancing measures have reduced capacity at area homeless shelters, and the economic crisis has put more people at risk for homelessness.

Propelled by the freezing weather this month, a group of St. Louis nonprofits worked together to make additional room for around 250 people in the past two weeks by extending shelter hours and paying for people to stay in motel rooms.

“I’ve never seen a coalition come together like this before,” said Teka Childress, a longtime homeless advocate and founder of St. Louis Winter Outreach.

Downtown temporary shelter

St. Patrick Center, Horizon North Housing and Tent Mission STL also helped open a new 24-hour shelter downtown in the St. Patrick Center’s staff lounge and shuttered cafe on Feb. 7.

The temporary shelter is referred to as a safe haven site because it doesn’t have any requirements and accepts anyone. Many shelters have curfews, limit entrance to certain genders or restrict people from staying if they have substance abuse or behavioral issues. St. Louis hasn’t had a safe haven shelter since 2016.

St. Patrick Center and other providers converted Murphy's Grill in the nonprofit's first floor to house homeless people during February's freezing temperatures. The grill has been shuttered for the past few years. Taken on Feb. 12, 2021.
Kayla Drake
St. Patrick Center and other providers converted Murphy's Grill in the nonprofit's first floor to house homeless people during February's freezing weather. The grill has been shuttered for the past few years.

“It doesn't matter what someone has done or what someone is doing,” the St. Patrick Center's Anthony D’Agostino said. “They're a human being, they have dignity, and they don't deserve to be on the streets when it's negative zero temperatures.”

People without housing are three times as likely to have a chronic illness, D’Agostino said, which can make them more susceptible to developing a serious case of COVID-19, should they contract the virus.

Horizon North Housing, St. Patrick Center, Tent Mission STL and many volunteers got the safe haven shelter running in just three days. It can accommodate 28 people during the day and sleep 20 at night. D’Agostino estimated the safe haven site will be open until next Wednesday, but said the timeline is flexible.

‘Safe haven’ from dangerous cold

The shelter also acts as a hub to connect people to housing services and gives out meals, bus tickets and lots of coffee.

Kevin Johnson said he appreciates the new shelter being open. If it wasn’t, he said he might be trying to keep warm near the steam vents outside the downtown Hilton hotel. Instead, he was at the shelter Friday morning helping volunteers by opening doors and carrying in supplies. Johnson has been living without stable housing for five years.

He’s seen firsthand that freezing weather can cause life-or-death situations. Last winter, he saw someone sleeping outside near Union Station die in the cold.

“He laid down, I came back, and he was blue,” Johnson said.

Forecasts in St. Louis predict snow over the weekend and lows near zero. As of Saturday morning, the temperature in the city had been below freezing for more than 170 consecutive hours, according to the National Weather Service.

Many churches that typically open up to shelter people during the coldest stretches of winter have declined to do so this year because of the pandemic, said Tim Huffman, a St. Louis University professor who helped launch the temporary shelter.

The eventual goal is to open a permanent safe haven shelter that doesn’t have any barriers for people to stay at, D’Agostino and Huffman said.

The City of St. Louis has converted Cherokee and Tandy Recreation Centers into shelters as well. St. Louis County also opened a warming shelter that can take 20 people at the Salvation Army off Page Avenue near Overland, according to a county spokesperson.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @kayladrake

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.