Homeless [and powerless] in St. Louis: A problem without borders

I sat in a barely comfortable chair yesterday for three hours listening to men in suits debate whether a homeless shelter in St. Louis is a “detriment to the neighborhood.” The whole thing was rather surreal.

I’m not complaining about sitting three hours doing nothing but filling that chair, because I remember last Sunday I saw a man sitting on a concrete bench in the first floor rotunda of the Old Courthouse, and he obviously had no place else to go.  I wonder about the man hiding inside that grey hair and shaggy beard.  I wonder what he was keeping in that huge duffle bag next to him.  I wonder why he didn’t look up.

The public hearing at St. Louis City Hall was held in a large room with a wall of windows behind the members of the commission, who will determine if the human beings and their behavior in and around the New Life Evangelistic Center are bad enough to close down the shelter.  The attorney for the petitioner spent the better part of an hour asking a police officer who works in the area of the shelter questions that were intended to make the case for closing New Life.  Ouch.

“New Life” is what they kept calling the shelter, and that is the same phrase so many good-hearted people use to describe what happens in a pregnant woman’s body.  One of the examples of “horrible behavior” in the street outside the shelter was that of a toddler running around in “just a diaper” which fell off and had in it “what children leave in diapers.”  Easy to picture a toddler doing that.  But is that behavior a “detriment to the neighborhood”?  If we, as a society, have extremely strong opinions and feelings about the fetus before it becomes that toddler in “just a diaper,”  what happened to us that we lose interest in that fetus once it is running around a homeless shelter?

Another example was of a grown man urinating against an outside wall somewhere near the building.  I thought of the somber man sitting quietly in the rotunda of the Old Courthouse.  Where does someone go to the bathroom except in public buildings, homeless shelters or in an alley if you don’t have a bathroom of your own?  Frankly, most of us take these niceties for granted.  In fact, my house has two bathrooms for just two of us.  And a shower.  I can’t imagine how awful it must feel to not be able to shower every so often. One of the reasons a certain winter emergency shelter is so popular with the freezing lumps of humanity who are lucky enough to have someone pick them up and take them there is because that one shelter has a shower. Think about that. Think about how you’d feel if  the most wonderful thing that happened to you yesterday was the ability to take a shower.

All in all, I think the lawyer for the petitioner, which is actually the collective name for building owners in the area who signed a petition to close New Life, did a very good job of demonstrating the need for the City of St. Louis to better manage the millions of dollars of HUD money it receives every year for services for those with no place to live.

Why are people sleeping on the sidewalk and on park benches?  And why did the City think the solution was to build a barricade around the New Life Evangelistic Center? A barricade? Really? The way to keep people from sleeping on the sidewalk is to block the sidewalk with a barricade?

A friend of mine who does what she can to help those with no place to live told me that the benches in bus stop shelters now have dividers on them so no one can stretch out and sleep there. And it is illegal to sleep in the city parks. And in trash dumpsters. Yes, trash dumpsters. The police officer who testified for an hour yesterday described people hiding in dumpsters to avoid him because he would ask them to “move along.” Move along where?

The officer seemed like he sincerely cared about the men, women and children with no place to call home. He said he tries to get them to go to some of the dozens of social service agencies that might be able to help them. He even gives them brochures.

The attorney for the respondent in the case (New Life Evangelistic Center owner Rev. Larry Rice) did a pretty good job of cross examining the police officer. In fact, the attorney asked many of the same questions I would have asked. Are the behaviors described as being a “detriment to the neighborhood” isolated in that one location in the neighborhood? Drug deals? Fighting? Loud noise? Turns out most of the behaviors exhibited by guests of the homeless shelter are the same ones going on in the general population. In fact, the officer said the major problem in that area on weekend nights, especially after a sporting event, is the bar patrons on Washington Avenue. Fights, loud noise, drunk driving were just a few he named. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few illegal drugs somewhere in that crowd too and maybe even “solicitation for sex.”

As the officer was being cross examined, it became apparent that the petitioner’s attorney was uncomfortable. I don’t claim to read minds, but I’m a pretty good reader of body language. Turning around to look at the wall clock, flopping back in his chair, putting his glasses on and taking them off again and again, the lawyer making the case against New Life seemed to “comment” without speaking.  The commission chairman had ruled in favor of the petitioner’s attorney whenever there was an objection, and I felt the chair would side with him again during cross examination, but he didn’t. That may have added to the attorney’s frustration.  When he tried to force an end to the cross examination by claiming it had been a “long day,”  the attorney representing New Life quickly pointed out that “a long day” does not qualify as reason to object to testimony.

After some back and forth about how much more testimony would be presented, the chair decided to continue the hearing on Tuesday, October 1st at 1:45 p.m.

I don’t claim to know all the information needed to form an educated opinion about how to improve the situation for people who lack housing. But I’ve read the “Five Year Update on the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness” printed by the City of St. Louis sometime after the end of 2010.

Let me say up front that I recognize that the cities and counties in the metropolitan area don’t take responsibility for their own homeless citizens, which means St. Louis is doing the work that should be done in the outlying communities.  That said, I also know that St. Louis receives millions of dollars of tax money from the federal government which is collected primarily from taxpayers outside the City of St. Louis.  According to the Five Year Plan report, St. Louis received $54,954,081 in HUD grants between 2005 and 2010 plus another $8.4 through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (stimulus money) for Homeless Prevention.  There are dozens of organizations in the Continuum of Care system receiving funds from these HUD grants as well as doing fundraisers of their own.  I’ve participated in some of these fundraisers and am in awe of the people who work directly with those in need.  But I wonder how much duplication there is as far as overhead in all these various agencies and non-profit organizations.  I don’t know.  But I think it’s worth asking.  Those who work directly with homeless individuals, especially the volunteers who go out on cold winter nights to find people and take them to shelters, know firsthand what the needs are.

Yesterday I met Teka Childress who started St. Louis Winter Outreach a few years ago and about whom I’ve heard a chorus of praise from those who know her. I admire those who volunteer for Winter Outreach and can’t praise them enough.   The Post Dispatch published an op-ed article on June 18th  by Teka and two Winter Outreach volunteers asking the City to reject the petition to close New Life Evangelistic Center which will simply move the problem somewhere else.  They feel, and I agree, that closing a shelter is short-sighted and doesn’t address the overall issue of helping people who need it most. The article lists suggestions that would improve the situation for homeless citizens, and I hope the St. Louis Board of Public Service follows that advice.

Meanwhile, those of us with a voice in the political system should be demanding more funding for mental health services, job training and safe, affordable housing and child care.

The Democrat who recently won the nomination for Mayor of New York City wants to add a modest tax  on incomes over $500,000 a year to provide professional child care and pre-school for families that can’t afford it. Even the majority of upper income New Yorkers agree that taxes spent on the health and safety of children is money well spent. Everyone benefits in the long run when children are raised in a nurturing environment.

Our task in Missouri is to inject new life into the public debate over the government’s role in making our lives better. I would love to see the day when those with more resources than they need ask how they can help, rather than petitioning the government to move problems out of sight.