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St. Louis' Homeless Residents Face Uncertainty After City Removes Downtown Camp

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

Residents of what had been St. Louis’ largest homeless encampment, located just off Market Street in downtown St. Louis, are now on the move.

St. Louis Health Director Fredrick Echols ordered the camp to be cleared on April 29, saying it poses a public health risk of spreading the coronavirus.

The camp’s 50 or so residents had resisted moving to shelters during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, despite a push from the city. Campers cited concerns ranging from fear of greater exposure to COVID-19 to being unable to bring their possessions to city-run shelters. But after the city ordered residents to vacate the encampment last week — and a federal judge ruled against a temporary restraining order meant to halt the city’s effort — they now have little choice but to find somewhere else to stay.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, attorney John Bonacorsi of nonprofit civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders said that Echols’ order goes against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to not clear encampments during the community spread of COVID-19

“There are many more [homeless people] who have spread throughout the city and … this is what exactly the CDC recommends against,” he said.

Alex Cohen, an organizer with the grassroots collective Tent Mission STL, also joined the show and told host Sarah Fenske that homeless individuals “ended up all over the place” on Saturday following the decision by U.S. District Judge Sarah E. Pitlyk.

Cohen gave credit to ArchCity for filing the federal lawsuit and temporary restraining order; he said that it helped slow down the city’s clearing of the tent encampments. 

“It bought time, and I think it made the city reflect on how to move about this,” he said. 

Cohen said the city told him and the homeless residents that they would not take the tents until homeless individuals were taken to a nearby shelter. But Cohen said the city didn’t fulfill its promise when Sunday came around. 

“Unfortunately, when Sunday came, [the city] made it clear they wanted it wrapped up [by the time] Monday came around,” Cohen said. “They asked everyone to get out of their tent and take it down first. Then they had the park’s department clear it, and people went to be taken to [a] shelter.”

Mayor Lyda Krewson’s Director of Communications, Jacob Long, sent a statement to St. Louis on the Air stating that said the city has “successfully placed approximately 100 individuals who were willing to accept shelter.” Additionally, Long stated that no one was arrested, cited or detained.

While 100 individuals were placed in shelters, Cohen said not everybody staying at the tents got that chance.

“... Unfortunately, not everyone got taken to [a] shelter, and they were left without a tent, handwashing station or port-a-potty,” he said. 

Cohen said many homeless individuals are still residing at 12th and Market Street, as well as 14th and Market, but now have no tents to take shelter in.

“[It’s] very mixed messaging. Both for us and the residents,” he said. 

Another hearing of the case is now set for May 12. 

Listen to the discussion:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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