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Government, Politics & Issues

Downtown St. Louis Homeless Camp On Uncertain Ground As City Tries To Close It

A man at the encampment speaks to police and as onlookers videotape the exchange Friday morning.
Lindsay Toler | St. Louis Public Radio
A man at the encampment speaks to police as onlookers videotape the exchange Friday morning.

Updated at 11:40 a.m. May 2 with the court's ruling

A federal judge has denied a request to block the City of St. Louis from clearing a downtown camp of homeless people. 

The fate of the encampment off Market Street now is uncertain, as it is not clear when the city will take action. A spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson said her office is reviewing the decision.

The motion was part of a suit that ArchCity Defenders filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. On Saturday morning, Judge Sarah E. Pitlyk wrote in her decision that the city is providing adequate housing alternatives for people living at the camp and could immediately vacate it to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

St. Louis Health Director Fredrick Echols had said during a hearing Friday that if the restraining order was not granted, tents would be cleared out of the park. But, he said, no person at the camp would be forcibly removed. 

Rulings on other aspects of the lawsuit are still pending. Pitlyk scheduled another hearing for May 12.

The nonprofit civil rights law firm filed the suit Friday, two days after city officials pinned notices on the tents that told people to vacate the camp within 48 hours. 

That morning, workers approached the encampment with plastic bags and attempted to remove tents and personal belongings. Protesters stood on the tents so they couldn’t be moved and chanted, “Hell no, we won’t go.” 

The standoff lasted a few minutes. Then city workers and police left without clearing any tents. Nearby port-a-potties and public hand-washing stations had been removed earlier that morning.

The lawsuit asked the judge to bar the city from closing the camp unless the city provides the people there appropriate shelter. It also wants the judge to bar the city from issuing criminal or municipal citations until the people there are provided shelter.

It claims the city is criminalizing individuals’ “status” of being homeless, and therefore clearing the camp is “cruel and unusual punishment.” 

“We believe this would be a violation of their Eighth Amendment rights if they were punished simply because they are homeless and have nowhere else to go to survive,” Lee Camp, an attorney for ArchCity Defenders said at the hearing.

The camp formed weeks ago and has faced opposition from the city. City ordinances bar people from living in a tent or being in a park after 10 p.m. 

On April 29, Echols ordered the camp to be cleared. He said it poses a public health risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Tents at the encampment off Market Street, where about 50 unhoused individuals have lived for weeks. 5/1/20
Credit Lindsay Toler | St. Louis Public Radio
Tents at the encampment off Market Street, where about 50 unhoused individuals have lived for weeks.

Enough capacity in homeless shelters? 

Echols has promised housing to all of the nearly 50 people staying in the camp once they are tested for the coronavirus. Echols also said he has secured contracts with St. Patrick Center, a homeless services nonprofit, to provide case workers to connect people at the camp with housing.

However, the city’s housing capacity is disputed by some homeless advocates. Many shelters in the region have reduced capacity to account for social distancing guidelines. In recent weeks, Echols said the city has secured additional beds, but ArchCity Defender attorney John Bonacorsi said nearly 100 people are on a waiting list for those beds. 

Still, Echols said enough spaces are reserved for individuals to clear the encampment downtown. 

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Ranata Frank, said she has been waiting for weeks for a housing assignment from the city, while living in the encampment. City lawyers said a space was made for her, but caseworkers could not find her, so her spot was filled.

Though other tent encampments exist elsewhere in the city, only the ones along Market Street received notices to vacate, Echols said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend not clearing encampments during the pandemic.

‘Not a new problem’

Local providers of homeless services have criticized the city’s decision to disband the camp. On Thursday, the St. Louis Continuum of Care, which represents homeless area providers, issued a letter to Krewson that said a “lack of planning, forethought and involvement with local CoC expertise will cause additional trauma to our unhoused population.”

Deputy City Counselor Michael Garvin said the city only has to follow CDC guidelines if housing is unavailable for people. 

Some individuals at the camp think they will be arrested if they do not comply with the city’s order to vacate the park. Echols said at the hearing there is no plan in place for the city to forcibly remove individuals from the encampment Friday by 10 p.m., but he gave no clear answer on whether arrests could be made in the future. 

Several aldermen, including Cara Spencer of the 20th Ward, who heads the city’s Health and Human Services Committee, have criticized Krewson’s office for its approach to clearing the camp. Spencer said this situation is a result of a breakdown of trust between the homeless population and the government for years.

“This is not a new problem,” she said.

Spencer, who in January announced plans to challenge Krewson in a 2021 mayoral run, said the city government has failed for the past six weeks to provide an adequate plan for the homeless population.

“These are human beings, and our government's response to this pandemic will be judged on how we treat our most vulnerable,” she said. “We failed to do that, shame on us.”

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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