St. Louis homeless encampment project hits a dead end — for now
The $900,000 project to establish St. Louis’ first city-funded intentional encampment for homeless people is a dead end for now.
St. Patrick Center, the project’s sponsor, secured the federal coronavirus relief funds last year to implement the pilot project, but resistance in the local community has stalled a plan to put the camp on a vacant lot at First Street and Cass Avenue.
The center’s CEO, Anthony D’Agostino, told St. Louis on the Air that the pushback was unsurprising — but still represents a huge hurdle in a city where aldermen carry what’s close to veto power.
“If you're asking for a community to raise their hand and say, ‘Yes, have it here,’ I don't know where that's going to happen,” D’Agostino said.
D’Agostino said encampment is a “supercharged” word. That’s why his organization planned to erect around 40 tiny sheds — not tents — similar to efforts in Oakland and Denver. Even so, some residents and businesses in the surrounding 5th Ward remained opposed. That includes the ward’s alderman, James Page.
“[Business owners] oppose encampments in that area because they see it as deteriorating their business environment and providing decreased security,” Page said.
Page said he supports homeless providers, but his ward is already saturated with services.
Last year, the Board of Aldermen approved a pandemic aid package exempting nearly half of the city’s 28 wards from being considered for an encampment, including the 5th Ward. Several northside wards requested to be exempt, Page said, because the burden to provide homeless services has historically rested on those wards. He wants other parts of the region to step up.
“Those wards wanted to make sure that they did not house a disproportionate number of such encampments,” Page said. “It was a position of fairness and equity being sought.”
While D’Agostino said he recognizes the inequity at hand, he said the people the encampment is designed for are mostly living in the 5th Ward already. Without an intentional plan, the result is simply unauthorized, pop-up encampments.
“In the short term, there may be some political backlash,” he said. “But in the long term, it will benefit that ward.”
Beyond that, D’Agostino said the industrial setting near the riverfront would work best to distance the site from business owners and residents.
“I don't know the necessary chess moves to go in this direction, but we're open to doing anything we can to make sure this happens because it's a need,” he said.
But D’Agostino said he needs the backing of Mayor Tishaura Jones’ office to get an encampment established in a good location. He said there’s no point in having an encampment more than three miles from St. Patrick Center, because it’s a hub for services.
If the center cannot secure community and political buy-in for the encampment by 2026, it will have to give up the funds.
“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 Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.