The holidays are over. Homelessness isn’t.

As+we+transition+to+the+later+months+of+winter%2C+the+unhoused+population+in+St.+Louis+still+needs+our+support.

Emily Early

As we transition to the later months of winter, the unhoused population in St. Louis still needs our support.

By Pathfinder Editorial Board, Parkway West High School

The holidays might be drawing to a close, but our commitment to our city should not be. While the rest of us hunker down into our mid-winter routines, safe and warm at home, St. Louis’s homeless population continues to face hardships after several failures from the city government to provide an adequate response to the needs of our fellow citizens.

As students in a relatively wealthy, suburban district, a significant portion of us never have to experience, or even consider, what it might be like to be homeless. Yet, we may not realize that there are about 250 students in Parkway with insecure housing. While many of our families dish up some much needed donations during the holiday season, come January, giving always seems to dry up. This year, we cannot forget as soon as the holidays end. This year, we need to respect their wishes and goals in our community. This year, it is imperative that we keep fighting for homeless people and continue to support their needs.

In Missouri, there are an estimated 6,527 homeless people. In St. Louis, Black citizens are four times as likely to experience homelessness as their white counterparts. Homeless communities have faced frequent issues with the government and police, including attempts to dispel temporary housing encampments and evict residents.

Back in April and May, the city cited the pandemic as the primary motivator behind its decision to move homeless citizens to temporary housing in hotels. While the intentions seemed pure, the result was far from it. Homeless residents, who had previously lived in a close-knit community with a mayor, a support system and health provisions from local organizations, found themselves isolated and living under restrictive conditions. When a resident committed a minor infraction, they faced eviction from the hotels.

“They didn’t want us there [in the encampments] and they didn’t want to look bad for kicking us out, so they gave us a place to stay. But then they kicked us all out. I don’t think they were actually there to help us,” local resident Megan Place said to St. Louis Public Radio.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had warned against moving individuals out of encampments, arguing that apart from disrupting a centralized location where residents could seek care from local health organizations, dispersing the group during the pandemic would only increase the risk of infection across the city. Nevertheless, former Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration went ahead with the eviction, moving residents to temporary hotel housing.

In a severe and ongoing pandemic, or in any situation, evictions can be a form of violence to residents, both housed and unhoused, in already precarious situations. Homeless residents especially expressed frustration that they felt the city sought to get rid of them, not help them.

In response to continual bureaucratic blockades on funding, volunteers established a temporary safe haven shelter. But the shelter only lasted until Jan. 5. Winter will stretch on for two more months. Next year, will we find our city in the same situation?”

— Pathfinder Editorial Board

“They just didn’t want to be treated like children,” Tent Mission STL’s Sharon Morrow said. “They wanted to be treated with honor and dignity as the adults that they were, not criminals.”

While Krewson is no longer in office, many conditions have not changed for St. Louis’s homeless residents under current Mayor Tishaura Jones’ administration. Currently, the city has failed to secure a ‘safe haven’ homeless shelter, which homeless residents need during the winter. Despite millions of dollars in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan, contracts to create a shelter have yet to be finalized, leaving homeless citizens without a long-term winter shelter and community activists picking up the brunt of the necessary response. The city has not delegated any of its own funding to homeless services in almost two decades.

“People have been organizing at the community level to respond to radical poverty in St. Louis for probably as long as the city has existed,” local organizer Tim Huffman said to St. Louis Public Radio.“Part of the funding holdup is stiff structures in place that don’t allow city services to be more flexible.”

While donating or volunteering is one way to help, especially as students living in an affluent district, these deadly results of city failures are root-deep. Last winter, five homeless people froze to death in St. Louis. We cannot allow that to happen again.

“It was so cold,” unhoused resident Kenny Gurney said. “It felt like my fingers were frozen. That kind of cold will cut through you like a knife.”

In response to continual bureaucratic blockades on funding, volunteers from St. Patrick Center and Tent Mission STL established a temporary safe haven shelter on Saint Louis University’s campus. Low-barrier havens like these are necessary, because they do not turn away homeless residents who are struggling with substance abuse. But the shelter only lasted until Jan. 5, and subsequent emergency shelters are not able to function for long without support. Winter will stretch on for two more months. Next year, will we find our city in the same situation?

Organizers are hopeful that Jones’ administration will be able to properly utilize funding. Still, issues like these are structural, systemic and cannot be undone in a day or by a single administration.

In Parkway, homelessness comes in many forms, from having to rely on family members for temporary housing, to staying with a family friend, to living in a hotel. As with our city, we need to push for better care and support for the unhoused families in our own district who are affected by government failures. Parkway social worker Diane Peterson works with insecurely housed students and those in foster care.

“Something that’s important to point out initially is that the mental model a lot of us have of unhoused person who is on the side of the road with a sign and things like that is not typically how homelessness manifests,” Peterson said. “It’s chaotic for people to have to scrounge for housing, really on a constant basis. It can be very hard for unhoused students or insecurely house students to get good sleep, to have consistent food to have the mental or emotional energy to cope adequately with the stresses of school and peer relationships, and to complete homework or be organized in a way that’s needed to be successful with their studies.”

As a district, Parkway currently provides transportation, school supplies, food, Internet access and other resources it can to unhoused students. But, the district cannot provide housing for these families. Parkway is also unable to help with payments for families on the brink of homelessness or who are trying to access a new home.

This January, we can help. As temperatures fluctuate, often dipping below freezing, our community is in danger. With community solidarity, we can save lives.”

— Pathfinder Editorial Board

“It’s very hard to help people find affordable housing in the district. And because the typical avenues to finding housing also are generally linked with a corporate entity, that requires a good credit history, a good rental history, all those things you need to rent an apartment,” Peterson said. “Just going online isn’t usually a good path to finding housing for unhoused families because they likely have something financially or in their rental history that is unfavorable to their application and they can’t get an apartment that way. I wish it were easier because of course families ask us for help with that all the time.”

In St. Louis, about 35 to 40 percent of homeless people are chronically unhoused, placing us above the national average of 27 percent. Yet, we also have a plethora of existing infrastructure that we are not utilizing properly.

“When you drive around the city of St. Louis, or even in the county areas, you see buildings that were intended for multiple people to live in, an old hospital or health clinic or spaces like that, that have a lot of the infrastructure for plumbing and that sort of thing. Those buildings and those resources could be used to house people,” Peterson said. “One of the things that’s really hard for me sometimes is [that in] Parkway we have at least 30 buildings that have plumbing, heat, etc. And yet we’ve had times where families are sleeping in their car.”

Consider donating time, money and items to St. Patrick Center and other local organizations. (Leah Schroeder)

Seasonal events like the Parkway Holiday Cup or area food drives only provide a temporary influx of donations, but they will never be able to get at the root of these problems. It’s not enough to donate every holiday season and forget about our fellow citizens the rest of the year. First and foremost, we need to change how we visualize homelessness.

“[Some people] have a mindset that families that find themselves in unstable housing or [who are] unhoused, that that’s somehow a reflection of their character, instead of understanding that it’s a reflection more so of relative privilege or luck, or going through some hard times,” Peterson said. “I think that compassion leads to solutions, ultimately. That’s what I would like to see.”

This January, we can help. As temperatures fluctuate, often dipping below freezing, our community is in danger. The Pathfinder staff is hosting a drive, hoping to collect monetary and item donations for local organizations, and we ask that you consider donating money, needed items or even your time. With community solidarity, we can save lives. Most importantly, we cannot be complacent with the manner in which our city handles homelessness.

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on January 31, 2022.