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Operation Winter Haven Kept 260 Homeless St. Louisans Out Of The Cold During Deadly Snap

Homeless people huddle over steam grates near the Enterprise Center in January 2019.
File photo / Bill Greenblatt / UPI
Homeless people huddle over steam grates near the Enterprise Center in January 2019.

A two-week blitz by advocates for homeless St. Louisans has kept an estimated 260 people out of the cold, even as freezing weather has blanketed the region for nearly two weeks.

But advocates who worked around the clock to build a temporary “zero barrier” safe haven shelter to get people off the streets say their frantic efforts would not have been necessary if the city would have funded such a shelter much earlier in the pandemic.

Tim Huffman, an associate professor of communication at St. Louis University, explained on St. Louis on the Air that the city has been without a shelter open to all homeless people without rules or requirements since it forced the closure of New Life Evangelistic Center in April 2017.

That’s a problem all year round, he said. And it becomes an even bigger problem when temperatures drop below freezing. At that point, the city has relied on an ad hoc group of churches and service providers to keep people out of the cold.

The pandemic changed that equation this year. Going back to last May, Huffman said, “a group of us realized we're not going to be able to expand our winter capacity the way that we used to. We have [a] huge [number of] church-based volunteers, many of whom are older. They're not going to have, you know, the same use of their facilities. We're not going to have as many volunteers, and we won't be able to just pack people in like inhumane sardines into the existing shelters because of COVID restrictions.”

Alex Cohen, an organizer with Tent Mission STL, said he and other advocates have been “screaming” since New Life’s closure that another no-barrier shelter is needed. And as advocates looked ahead to the pandemic winter, they continued to sound the alarm.

They said several proposals were made to the city that would have utilized CARES Act funding. They were not funded.

So the advocates turned to private funding. The effort they dubbed Operation Winter Haven involved three prongs: converting preexisting homeless shelters to 24-hour operations, giving people a way to stay out of the cold during the day; leasing hotel rooms to handle the overflow; and creating a safe haven, zero-barrier shelter at St. Patrick Center that served as both an organizing hub and a warming spot for anyone unable, or unwilling, to stay in a residential environment.

Guerilla efforts saw advocates combing the city, seeking out people without housing and detailing their options. Others turned to social media in a fundraising blitz. The work was so on-the-fly, many donors simply transferred money to a Tent Mission STL volunteer via Venmo.

Both Cohen and Huffman said they were blown away by the generosity of smaller donors, many of whom chipped in their $600 stimulus checks, and the overall collaboration that saw so many people get shelter during a dangerous cold snap.

“In the time I've lived in St. Louis, I've never seen everyone [homeless] get in[side] during the day,” Huffman said. “It's just a monumental accomplishment. And I've also never seen so many people from so many different sectors working so collaboratively north and south, church, nonprofit, governmental, so many different program models and people showing up to do the work. And I'm really, I've met some amazing people over the last two weeks.”

Huffman noted the recent crisis is part of a larger shift in funding for homeless services. “Federal funds have started to prioritize housing — not just transitional housing, but in some cases, permanent housing for people who are severely disabled, and are going to need a really long time to stabilize their life,” he said. “And I think those things are good.

“But what it has done is, it has shifted the responsibility for emergency solutions to local governments. And St. Louis has just not shown up for it. It does not spend the amount of money that it needs of its own capital to address the needs of these residents.”

Contacted after the show for comment, a spokesman for the mayor’s office said the city had pitched in for the recent safe haven effort. And service providers confirmed that the city did come on board for the collaboration in recent weeks, including waiving the need for any special permits for the safe haven shelter and offering to kick in funding.

But they said that the city helped to create the crisis by failing to fund previous proposals to establish a safe haven shelter throughout the winter months. That included several proposals specifically aimed at preventing the need for the blitz that advocates engaged in during the past two weeks.

Said Anthony D’Agostino, executive director of the St. Patrick Center, “There is a mistrust between the city and the Continuum of Care,” which consists of the homeless service providers working in St. Louis. “It’s a major problem on both sides, and there’s plenty of blame to go around on both. It’s not collegial, it’s not collaborative, and it needs work.”

Shanna Nieweg, executive director of Horizon Housing Development Corp., said her organization had twice made proposals that included such a winter shelter operation — one proposal in September and one in October. The city ultimately did not fund either.

Nieweg said her organization again circled back in January when the forecast showed sub-zero temperatures on the way. “We were told, ‘We’re not your personal piggy bank,’” she said.

At that point, she said, the organizations decided to seek private funding instead.

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 and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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