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City adds beds, warming buses for homeless this winter

ST. LOUIS – Passengers boarding a bus early each evening at a downtown street corner aren’t heading for a place to shop or work or a trip home. They don’t have homes, and instead are on their way to shelters where they can find a warm bed.

As part of its efforts to keep the city’s homeless out of the cold this winter, the city started on Dec. 1 offering the warming bus service from 5:30 to 7 p.m. each night. At 7 p.m., those on the buses are taken to shelters.

The service will continue until Feb. 29.

During the same period, St. Louis is making more beds available at shelters. 

It’s part of the city’s Cold Weather & Outreach Program. Throughout the year, the city supports 930 emergency beds, said Jacob Long, director of communications for Mayor Lyda Krewson.

But as an added step from Dec. 1 through Feb. 29, the St. Louis Department of Human Services allocated $500,000 from Use Tax revenue for 186 overflow beds. Part of that money will go for supplies.

While those services are continuous from the start of December to the end of February, they also were offered in October and November and will be offered in March when the temperature falls below 32.   

In the past, the services were offered only when the temperature dipped to 25 degrees or below with precipitation, or 20 degrees without precipitation.  

“The city dedicates more resources and more time to help our most vulnerable population than any other governmental entity in the region,” Long said. “We take the lead because we care.”

During the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the city spent $17.2 million on homelessness and housing services.

According to a news release, St. Louis is working with St. Louis Winter Outreach, St. Louis City Continuum of Care and some other community organizations that help the homeless in cold weather. 

For some shelters, there won’t be much of a difference between warmer weather and winter. 

“We’ve offered services year-round for 60,” said Adam Pearson, chief operating officer for Peter and Paul Community Services, which operates a shelters at 711 Allen St. “We haven’t really seen a shift.”

Teri Dunn, Director of Shelter Services at Sts. Peter and Paul Shelter at 711 Allen Ave. in the Soulard neighborhood. Dunn stands in a 60-bed unit at the shelter. Photo by Robert C. Holt III / for metroSTL.com
Peter and Paul’s shelter actually starts filling up at 1 p.m., said Teri Dunn, the group’s director of shelter services.

Before that, homeless people go to various places to stay warm, Dunn said.

“The clients go to the library. They go to the casinos. They ride the MetroLink,” Dunn said. Some clients work.

It would be good if more churches opened up warming areas, Dunn said.

“There’s still going to be someone who has nowhere to go,” she warned. 

Meanwhile, the new city services didn’t impress the Rev. Larry Rice, who runs the New Life Evangelistic Center. That group’s building for the homeless at 1411 Locust St. closed in 2017 because of a variety of violations, the Post-Dispatch reported at the time.

“All of this stuff is very wonderful on paper,” Rice said.

Rice said the city could save hundreds of thousands of dollars if it allowed his shelter to reopen. Then it wouldn’t have to spend $500,000 for the 186 extra beds.

Rice also said stationing the warming buses from 5:30 to 7 p.m. wouldn’t do much good. When the buses start heading for shelters at 7 p.m., many of the shelters are already full, he said.

Rice also said that it would be better to have the warming buses available all night, because homeless people need beds at all hours. 

New Life is collecting petitions to put a measure on the ballot that would allow it to reopen if it follows the guidelines of an order by the building commissioner in 2018. Rice said well-to-do people who lived near the center’s former downtown building didn’t want it to reopen.

Rice may not think the city’s new wintertime services are enough, but homeless people interviewed outside the warming buses on Thursday said they appreciated them.

“It’s really nice of them, especially today,” said Arron Phillips, 57, who has been homeless for 20 years.

Willie Canon said it was good that the city was providing a bus, but he said there was a need for more.

“Two or three extra at the maximum would be perfect. It doesn’t make any sense for everybody to have to pile up on one,” he said.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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