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Homeless in tent city want to ‘be seen’

DOWNTOWN WEST – A tent city has sprung up downtown in the Memorial Plaza park along Market Street between 14th and 15th streets.

Homeless men, and some women, are sheltering in tents and under blue tarps provided by volunteers. It’s a site where homeless people gather regularly, but the tent city makes their presence more visible.

Some of the temporary residents explain that, especially during the spreading COVID-19 coronavirus health crisis, they feel they are being overlooked. They want reliable shelter, ways to protect themselves from infection and a chance at paid work – but most of all, they want to “be seen.”

That’s the phrase one of the residents, Marquise Porter-Dowle, used. He said the worst thing about being homeless was feeling invisible, not part of society.

He has some company at the tent city. Porter-Dowle calls himself the head of security there and said it was a shame that homeless people sometimes stole from each other.

As he spoke Sunday, April 5, a group of volunteers handed out hygiene kits and snacks.  A canvas canopy provided cover for several people sitting on a donated sofa as others lay in their tents or strolled through the encampment. Some picked up trash, while others tossed it to the ground.

Consistent social distancing isn’t possible in such a setting. But these people have more immediate and evident needs, pushing fear of the coronavirus down their list.

Porter-Dowle emphasized that what he truly wanted was a job, not a handout.

“I want to work, like everybody else,” he said. “People come up and ask me, ‘What do you need?’ and they hand me a T-shirt. I want to work.”

He acknowledged that jobs are hard to come by. They’re especially hard for people such as Porter-Dowle, who has, he said, “a few felonies” in his past. But he wants a chance.

“I’m not the same person I was before,” he said.

Another homeless man at the tent city on Sunday was Marcus Hunt, who helped organize the donation of the tents and tarps through a volunteer he had dealt with before. Hunt said he was trying to establish a Facebook page or other way to collect donations to help St. Louis’ homeless. He said the name of the new group would be United Neglected Needy; in a statement in June 2019 on the For the People Facebook page, he suggested the group’s name would be the United National Needy Peoples Foundation.

“We need someone or some people to speak up for those of us who aren’t articulate who aren’t picture perfect because all of our rights need to be protected,” the statement reads.

The city’s housing hotline number is 314-802-5444.

But Porter-Dowle explained that many homeless people also lack phones.

June Heath

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