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Government, Politics & Issues

Life In St. Louis’ Most Vulnerable Neighborhoods In The Time Of Coronavirus

Kim Daniel sewing masks at a machine
Wiley Price | St. Louis American
Kim Daniel makes her own masks for her protection at her home in Preservation Square.

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer CenterAdditional support provided by the St. Louis Press Club.

Kim Daniel has stared death in the eye more times than she can count. But the coronavirus has her more than scared. “It’s intimidating,” said the 53-year-old. “I don’t walk out the door without a mask, gloves, baby wipes and rubbing alcohol.”

Her door opens into a two-bedroom apartment in an affordable housing development called Preservation Square. It’s located just a mile west of downtown St. Louis, in a ZIP code that has been identified as ranking last in the region in social determinants of health. 

A lot of factors go into that ranking, but the main one is that, on average, people living in 63106 will die sooner than most anyone else in metropolitan St. Louis. The life expectancy of a person born in 63106 in 2010 was 67 years, according to data from the census and the St. Louis Department of Health. That compares to 85 years in 63105, which covers Clayton, the St. Louis County seat six miles to the west.

Residents in 63106 die younger because they suffer from higher rates of chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. They have less access to health care, nutritious food and fresh air. Higher crime rates in their neighborhood are a factor too, not just because of the physical harm crime brings, but because of the stress it imposes on immune systems. Crime makes residents fearful to venture outdoors and to public spaces where they can enjoy sunshine and recreation.

Now add to this toxic stew the looming threat of a pandemic that impacts everyone but falls most heavily on African Americans.

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Accustomed to fighting the fight

Kim Daniel comes to the pandemic, and the joblessness and fear it can engender, as a seasoned veteran.

She was born with a congenital heart defect. “They (the doctors) said I wouldn’t live to my first birthday,” Kim recalled. “I made it. They said I wouldn’t live to age 6. I made it.”

At age 17, in 1985, Daniel dropped out of Beaumont High School after learning she was pregnant. The pregnancy nearly took her life; she went into cardiac arrest in her ninth month. But doctors resuscitated her and performed an emergency C-section. And that’s how Terrence came into this world.

At age 24, it once again seemed that Daniel’s time had come. She suffered a cardiac arrest while undergoing a cardiac catheterization. But the medics were able to bring her around. 

“The doctor told me then, ‘If you don’t lose weight, you’ll be dead by age 35.' Right now I weigh 219 pounds" — 80 pounds more than at age 24 — "and I am still here.”

Her weight aside, Daniel knows how to take care of herself and others. Her resourcefulness and determination may be what sees her through the pandemic. Despite her health issues, she went on to earn a GED — and didn’t stop there. Daniel is a lifelong learner. If she needed to know something, she picked up a book or went online. That’s how she learned to save her money, understand how government benefit programs work and invest her money wisely. That’s how she was able to put food on the table for Terrence, and later his little brother, Michael. And that’s how she was able to afford a car when many of her neighbors must rely on public transportation.

Given these characteristics, it’s perhaps not surprising that for many years, she was a caregiver for her entire extended family. She not only raised her two children but also helped watch over her sister’s child and her aunt’s four children.

Kim Daniel, whose health is fragile, says she never leaves her without masking up and putting on gloves. She took a few seconds in her car to produce a selfie without her mask for this report. March 2020
Kim Daniel

When her two sons were children, Daniel relied for a couple of years on food stamps to feed them and herself. She started up with food stamps again in 2004 and continues to receive Supplemental Security Income, which provides a stipend for basic needs for low-income citizens with disabilities. But she has always sought work and has held a variety of jobs, including hotel housekeeper, home health care aide and school bus driver (her favorite). She is currently starting her second year as an employee with the St. Louis AmeriCorps VISTA program. Under its aegis, she is working with Urban Strategies, an organization that helps bring resources to underserved neighborhoods in St. Louis and nationwide.

Marlene Hodges, a longtime community organizer for Urban Strategies, said Daniel is a master at outreach, excelling at organizing social events for residents in Preservation Square. “You give her a task, and she gets it done,” Hodges said. Daniel was starting to build an advisory council that would give residents a stronger voice in the future of their neighborhood.

Street shot of Preservation Square. April, 2020
Wiley Price | St. Louis American

Then the coronavirus outbreak brought her effort to a temporary halt. Now she is working from home, editing and rewriting a manual on trauma-informed tutoring.

Kim is definitely trauma-informed. She has seen and experienced more than her share in the neighborhoods where she has lived and within her family, too. Her elder son, Terrence, a Navy veteran, was arrested not long after his discharge in 2011 for participating as the driver of the getaway car in a bank robbery in Auburn, Alabama. That led to a 22-year sentence that he is serving at the Fountain Correctional Center in Alabama. Daniel is a strong believer in having her son face the consequences. But now he is facing more than just doing time, as prison inmates are considered at great risk of contracting the coronavirus.

No infections have been reported to date at Fountain, which is about 50 miles northeast of Mobile. But few tests had been performed. And Alabama officials were bracing for an outbreak, with a prediction of as many as 185 deaths among a statewide prison population of 22,000, according to a report obtained by AL.com.

“No one should be faced with a life-threatening disease, especially when they don’t have the opportunity to do anything about it,’’ Daniel said. “I am just hoping that the Alabama Department of Corrections will test all their employees and inmates so they can separate the sick from the well to serve out their time without the fear of being infected.”

Kim’s younger son, Michael, 32, is faring better, but is nonetheless at risk too. Also a Navy veteran, who saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan, Michael is now an essential worker. Each day he rises at 1 a.m. to head to an Amazon warehouse in Hazelwood. There he loads more than a dozen pallets of packages to take to rural post offices in eastern Illinois, about a 400-mile round-trip journey. This is all done with masks and distancing and with Michael assiduously wiping down his truck. But he is an independent contractor, which means that he not only provides his own vehicle but receives no medical benefits. He has no health care coverage.

Kim Daniel lives in the Preservation Square neighborhood, one of several affordable housing complexes in the 63106 zip code. April 2020
Dick Weiss

Michael recently lost his home to foreclosure. He is living with his father in Florissant. What little money he can put aside will go to tuition at a parochial school for his 12-year-old daughter, Mi’kehael, who is staying with her mom. 

Daniel wants to help out her family and anyone she can during this crisis. She has been a caregiver all her life to family, friends and even strangers. She has always provided the answers either by giving sage advice or hands-on help. But who will provide the answers for her, should her heart begin to fail, should she contract the virus?

“If I fall ill,” Daniel said, “there is no one readily available. No one to count on, no one to be at my beck and call, no one to manage my bills.

“My only alternative is to remain healthy.”

Dick Weiss is the executive editor of Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson

Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson, a nonprofit racial equity project, is telling the story of families in 63106 one by one over the course of the pandemic. Kim Daniel’s story is one of as many as 10 that will be shared with St. Louis Public Radio and other mainstream media in St. Louis for what will likely be months to come. You can watch this space for further episodes in her life and find an archive of other stories at beforefergusonbeyondferguson.com.

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