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Homeless service providers say St. Louis is not prepared for winter

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
Homeless services providers said they feel that the city is in worse shape than it was last year, after they learned the city may not provide a warming bus to transport people to available shelters.

On Dec. 1, the City of St. Louis launched winter operations to help support people without housing during the coldest months of the year. The city’s Department of Human Services announced that it will collaborate with outreach organizations to ensure that those without housing can access more than 700 shelter beds, including overflow beds.

St. Patrick CEO Anthony D’Agostino, Unhoused STL founder Ramona Curtis and STL Winter Outreach team volunteer Audra Youmans say there needs to be a more centralized system for people experiencing homelessness to access resources and shelter.
Emily Woodbury
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St. Patrick CEO Anthony D’Agostino, Unhoused STL founder Ramona Curtis and STL Winter Outreach team volunteer Audra Youmans say there needs to be a more centralized system for people experiencing homelessness to access resources and shelter.

Community volunteers and organizers who work to support those who are homeless, however, have serious concerns that St. Louis is not ready for this winter.

“We can't just talk about how many beds, but we need to talk about what types of beds. What really is in need right now are 24/7 emergency shelter beds that don't have any barriers to access,” Ramona Curtis, the founder of Unhoused STL, told Friday's St. Louis on the Air.

In addition, she said, outreach service providers like herself don’t always know the location of city-provided shelter beds.

“If you go on the Department of Human Services website right now, it refers you to outreach apps to get access to those beds. It also refers you to 211. It does not tell you where you can find those outreachers. It does not give you an address or a telephone number,” she said. “If outreachers don't know where those beds are, how can we get unhoused people to those beds?”

St. Patrick CEO Anthony D’Agostino and St. Louis University student and STL Winter Outreach volunteer Audra Youmans also joined the show. All three providers said they feel that the city is in worse shape than it was last year, after they learned the city may not provide a warming bus to transport people to available shelters.

In a statement, St. Louis Director of Human Services Yusef Scoggin touted expanded services but did not directly answer whether the city would provide a warming bus.

"This year, the Department of Human Services has required that all city-funded winter shelter bed providers operate on a 24/7 basis through March 31 to greatly expand our service capacity, while the warming bus had limited capacity, operating for only two hours in one location Downtown and only on nights where temperatures dipped below freezing,” wrote Scoggin. “DHS has coordinated many partners and agencies this year on citywide outreach strategies, connecting unhoused neighbors to available 24/7 beds and wraparound services to ensure they don’t get caught in the revolving door shelter system that does not address their underlying needs."

Youmans said the warming bus was more than just a place to get out of the cold — it served as a point of entry for people to access shelter and services.

“To take away the warming bus seems to just take away the only access point at this current time because the other solution is to call 211 for a placement, and you can only get a placement during business hours — if you're lucky,” Youmans said.

Youmans added that she believes the city’s 211 hotline is inadequate.

Anthony D’Agostino, Ramona Curtis and Audra Youmans join St. Louis on the Air

“[The] 211 hotline, in regards to homeless services, is a very, very expensive scapegoat for the city. They've contracted them, and they can constantly put out spokespeople and say, ‘We have all of these beds, we have all of these resources, just call 211 to be placed and get an intake.' And that's not the case,” she said. “People at 211 are frustrated. The operators that I talk to are frustrated. I still frequently call to try to see what information the general public has access to … and what I get frustrated by is that they don't have access to the information either. And that's what that hotline is for.”

Throughout 2022, Youmans made recordings of phone calls to 211 and sent them to city officials and United Way leaders. Operators on these calls displayed a lack of knowledge about how to connect people to the local shelter system — and some even gave the wrong times for when the housing hotline was open. She shared some of these recordings and her observations with St. Louis on the Air in February.

“I was hoping to be able to come on [today] and say, ‘Everything's changed, and everything's amazing,’ but [211] still does not work.”

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones will join St. Louis on the Air on Thursday to discuss this topic, among others. What would you like to ask the mayor? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpr.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the Air Facebook group, and help inform our coverage.

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 produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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