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St. Louis’ last safe haven winter shelters have now closed. Organizers want the city to step up

The overwhelming majority of teens and young adults who have contacted Covenant House Missouri for help during the pandemic are experiencing housing insecurity for the first time.
David Kovaluk
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St. Louis Public Radio
The last winter safe haven in St. Louis closed Saturday.

St. Louis' last safe haven closed this past weekend, leaving people outside Saturday in freezing temperatures. As winter has dragged on and the city has failed to fund a true safe haven — a place open to any homeless person who needs it, with 24/7 availability — volunteers have grown frustrated.

A small group of volunteers and providers has run pop-up safe havens throughout the winter months, cobbling together services with private funds despite the city previously earmarking $43 million in federal relief aid for homeless and supportive housing services.

Organizers cited space and monetary constraints in closing the shelters at Bethel Church in south St. Louis and a St. Louis University banquet room off Olive Boulevard. Together, they helped protect more than 100 people from frigid weather.

Alex Cohen, co-founder of Tent Mission St. Louis, said on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air that at least 17 people were left without shelter Saturday and had to sleep outside for the night.

 A notice posted on the door of IL Monastero, the St. Louis University banquet center off Olive Boulevard used for a temporary safe haven.
Kayla Drake
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St. Louis Public Radio
A notice posted on the door of IL Monastero, the St. Louis University banquet center off Olive Boulevard used for a temporary safe haven.

Lawrence, 54, was one of the people seeking shelter as SLU’s winter haven sought to wrap up operations Saturday, with temperatures around 20 degrees. He said the city needs more low-barrier, 24/7 shelters like the safe haven.

“You want to count us and get money from the government. But you don't want to count us and take some of this dadgum money and help us,” he said. “Nobody deserves to be out here in this cold.”

Cohen, who’s also a safe haven facilitator, said another safe haven will most likely not open this season. Yet, winter is not over.

“We're begging for someone to intervene,” he said. “We are burnt out, and it's time for the city to step up and pull their weight.”

Homeless service providers say safe haven shelters are needed because not enough emergency overflow shelter beds have been available this winter. Safe havens also help fill in the gap because they accept people who are barred from shelter systems for behavioral or drug reasons.

Cohen said providers also need more transparency from Mayor Tishuara Jones’ administration.

“It doesn't feel like we gained an ally, which is unfortunate,” he said. “The communication often feels like we're being gaslit.”

Last winter, volunteers and providers were furious with then-Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration for failing to fund a safe haven in time for cold weather. Cohen said many supported Jones in part because of her promises to treat the homeless community better. Yet he said this winter has been no different from previous years.

Cohen said an increasing number of volunteers and caseworkers are quitting over the toll winter outreach takes.

The city’s last safe haven homeless shelters have now closed. What’s next?

“That should scare a lot of people that the city government and big hospitals are OK with relying on this ragtag network of people who are very compassionate, but who aren't trained really to be in these positions,” he said.

Last week, KSDK reported the city has only spent 2% of the relief funds budgeted by the Board of Aldermen from the American Rescue Plan Act — $3.4 million out of $135 million.

Ramona Curtis of Unhoused STL helped launch the temporary safe haven at Bethel Church. She said St. Louis officials helped donate cots and blankets and sent caseworkers to help place people in shelters. But she’s still frustrated by the way money is allocated in the city.

“The old way didn't work, and we're still using that old way that didn't work,” Curtis said. “This is not about any individual. This is about the system; the system is broken.”

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 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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