As St. Louis seeks to evict riverfront camps, residents are clear: They don't want to go
Residents of four St. Louis tent encampments face eviction on May 2 — and many do not want to vacate.
City officials worked with the Missouri Department of Transportation to post eviction notices last week, giving an estimated 25 residents 10 days to find shelter. The main encampment is under the President Casino Laclede’s Landing pavilion near the Mississippi riverfront; three smaller camps along the viaduct at I-44 and Cole Street, near the Rams’ old stadium, are also being targeted.
City officials say the encampments pose a health risk, but some activists and residents question whether the eviction is prompted by downtown business interests. In May, Lumiere Casino will celebrate its new brand as Horseshoe Casino. Its hotel overlooks the camp.
Since the notices were posted, city caseworkers and nonprofit providers have worked to secure shelter spots for encampment residents, but many residents do not want to go to temporary shelters. They view living in an encampment as more stable than being in a homeless shelter, as Ramona Curtis, the founder of Unhoused STL, an advocacy organization for homeless people, explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air.
“We're talking about every day trying to find a bed somewhere,” she said. “Every morning, getting up and taking all your stuff and going someplace, figuring it out all day, and then repeat that same night trying to find a bed. Why would I prefer that lifestyle to living in a community, a neighborhood where my stuff is?”
More than a dozen tents make up the riverfront camp; many hold more belongings than their owners could carry in a single trip. Trains, barges and pigeons provide a soundtrack to residents’ daily rhythms. The camp has one dumpster, which is not regularly emptied by the city, no port-a-potties and no handwashing stations.
Debris is scattered along the outer edges of the encampment, but Trina Scott, 43, does her best to keep it clean. She’s called the camp home for the past six months. Scott previously stayed at the McGuire warehouse encampment, which was evicted in January 2021 for being on private property.
“I want to save my home,” Scott said, choking up. “It may be a tent to somebody else, but it's my home. I can't afford bills right now. I can't afford $700 a month of rent for a slumlord, because all them places they’re throwing us are trash.”
Unhoused STL founder Ramona Curtis said 10 days' notice is not enough time.
“It's not enough time for anybody,” she said. “Even if you have a job and you are renting from a landlord, you're given at least 30 days' notice. These are people with limited resources. How are they going to figure it out in 10 days?”
During a St. Louis on the Air conversation earlier this week, Mayor Tishaura Jones promised the city has enough shelter beds for camp residents. However, activists remain skeptical of Jones’ claim because shelters keep lists of people who have been banned. They also often have curfew restrictions that residents either cannot comply with due to their jobs or do not want to comply with.
“We have more shelter beds than pre-pandemic, so I don't know where that information is coming from that we don't have enough shelter beds,” Jones said. “Shelter is just the first stop, we want to make sure that we treat our house neighbors with dignity and respect and make them whole again.”
Curtis questioned that. She said providers are trimming back their city-financed shelter spaces now that winter is over, including closing shelters on Gamble and Cherokee streets. “There have been no new facilities that have opened, so we know that there are no shelter beds.”
JB, a resident at the riverfront encampment for more than two years who only only his first name, said the city has known about the camp for months. So he said he was disappointed that the eviction was the camp’s first interaction with its Department of Human Services.
“We survived the dog days of winter when nobody from the city or the mayor's office seemed to show any interest in our well-being at all,” he said. “And now that we survived that together, looking forward to the summer, warmer weather, now, the first indication or response or answers that the city has given us, is to evict us.”
The practice of clearing a tent encampment has become a familiar, predictable pattern in St. Louis — no matter what administration is in charge. Workers come in, rake away scattered belongings left by residents and drive off. Typically, belongings are put in the trash.
Curtis called the eviction an “act of violence.” When Jones’ administration evicted Interco Plaza last September, city workers brought in bulldozers to remove belongings.
“How are you going to believe that the people that will do this to you are now going to take care of those belongings when they have shown over and over again that they do not respect these people or their belongings?” Curtis asked.
That’s a major concern for camp resident Trina Scott. She lost her job and housing when the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, but she’s been homeless on and off for all her life. She’s concerned because the eviction notice promises residents’ belongings will be stored safely but doesn’t list a location.
“The city says, ‘We'll take your stuff up and just put it in storage somewhere.’ No, you're not. The moment I give you my stuff, I'm never gonna see it again,” she said. “I'm no fool. You're not playing with no dummy. I'm 43 years old and trust me, I've been on the streets since I was 9.”
Residents of encampments may find shelter temporarily, but providers frequently see residents just as easily disperse and form another encampment.
“There are some people that could not imagine surviving tents close to the water, frigid temperatures,” camp resident JB said. “Yet, it speaks to the character and the credibility of the people that choose to call this place home, that they would rather stay here and tough out the dog days of winter together, then use the resources that the city provides — because they know ultimately that this will lead them right back to where they started.”
“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.