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St. Louis still has no safe haven homeless shelter after city halts contract plans

The divide between the city and homeless service providers became very public last May, after the previous administration dismantled two downtown encampments against the advice of federal health officials and leaders from the Continuum of Care. The new administration under St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones acknowledges there have been some "toxic relationships" and is trying to mend them.
David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis has yet to fund a safe haven this winter season.

A little over a week after city officials promised St. Louis on the Air they were in the final stages of approving funding for a low-barrier homeless shelter, they canceled the negotiations meant to establish one.

On Jan. 3, Mayor Tishaura Jones’ spokesperson Nick Dunne said the safe haven contract was in “pre-approval” and “should be finalized already, if not very soon.” He even named the provider: Bridge of Hope Ministries, which is based in the city’s Ville neighborhood. But on Jan. 13, the city emailed Bridge of Hope’s executive director, Kelli Braggs, to say that the nonprofit was no longer being considered for the funds.

“We were actually in the process of hiring when we found out that the contract was being rescinded,” Braggs said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “This was a total shock.”

St. Louis Director of Human Services Yusef Scoggin said the city backed out of negotiations because its proposed shelter was not low-barrier and would not operate 24/7, so it could not be considered a true safe haven. To fund a safe haven that didn’t follow the application guidelines would be a “misuse of funds,” Scoggin said.

“[It would have] provided hardship for individuals as they have to move from one location to another,” he said.

But Braggs said she had never promised a 24/7 operation and had been proceeding at the city’s directive with a plan that relied on tag-teaming with a second nonprofit. “At no time did it ever come up that there was a second guess of whether or not we met that criteria,” she said.

Bridge of Hope was the only safe haven proposal submitted to the city, Scoggin said.

Why St. Louis pulled the plug on safe haven negotiations

Now, providers and volunteers are continuing to operate pop-up safe havens throughout this week’s winter storms — and once again, they’re using private funds to do it. Co-founder of Tent Mission STL Alex Cohen said the safe haven operating at St. Louis University has a 40-person capacity, but “for weeks we have had 65 people every night.”

Providers say 140 overflow beds are currently not funded by the city. Without more money or volunteer support, they say the situation is not sustainable.

“We've already lost a few people on the streets from freezing to death,” Braggs said. “And it's very likely that we may lose some more. There are not enough beds; there are not enough service providers.”

Even transportation to existing beds has been an issue. On Thursday evening, as the city was blanketed by snow and temperatures remained dangerously cold, city officials closed the city-operated warming bus that ferries people to shelters with open capacity on cold nights.

With roads in terrible condition Thursday, the mayor’s spokesperson Nick Dunne blamed staffing shortages. Once again, volunteers say they scrambled to assist people in need, with many transporting them in their own cars.

Dunne said the warming bus is set to resume operations Friday night.

City officials say they plan to reopen a safe haven application in late February or early March for nearly $1.4 million in federal funds. The city has budgeted more than $43 million of federal coronavirus funding toward homeless services and housing support.

Scoggin said providers with questions about the application should contact his office.

“I know it’s not easy to be denied particular funding,” he said. “It just may mean the proposals need to be tweaked or modified to be in alignment with the needs identified. We do not want to fund things for just the purposes of funding things.”

Since the city is the largest funding source for homeless services providers, Braggs said she will put “personal feelings to the side” and will re-apply for city funds in the future.

“I do fear moving forward, if we do a contract in the future, I understand the city can always change their mind,” Braggs said. “That's very scary.”

If you need to find shelter or need to assist someone in finding shelter, city officials say to call 211.

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 Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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