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Direct payments, homeless encampments spark controversy

CITY HALL – The issues of $5 million in direct payments to individuals and of encampments for the homeless brought more disagreements in city government on Monday.

In a news conference in the City Hall rotunda, Mayor Tishaura Jones issued a call for Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed to restore the direct payments in a package of federal COVID-19 aid aldermen are considering. Jones had put the money in an $80 million American Rescue Plan Act proposal. A committee took that out and recommended passage of a $153 million package.

The Board of Aldermen is expected to consider the measure for tentative passage at a special meeting Tuesday.

“Five hundred dollars makes a huge difference in people’s lives,” the mayor said. 

Jones said a recent study demonstrated that federal direct payment dollars cut food insecurity and lowered rates of financial instability.

“People need to be able to buy groceries, to pay off car payments, to have the chance to get back on their feet,” Jones stressed. “Five hundred dollars for thousands would go a long way towards helping make that happen.”

“I could use that money to finally move into a place of my own or to maybe use some of that towards getting a car,” said Nicole Rush, who works at Krab Kingz Seafood and is working for a $15 wage and a union.

The current proposal for the $5 million to be sent to the Treasurer’s Office for cash assistance lacks detail. It would support only a small number of the population – less than 3 percent or fewer than 10,000 people, said Mary Goodman, Reed’s legislative director.

“The way the $5 million proposal is written for the cash assistance, it does not reach as many people who need it. It also is to be put in the treasurer’s office with no reporting, no administration, no oversight. That’s an issue,” Goodman said.

Goodman added, “Why can’t she just let this slide, since she got 95% of her proposal adopted in this plan, and move on to the next round of funding – where it could be added once more details are flushed out?”

Jones and Goodman said the mayor and Reed were to meet on Monday afternoon to talk about the impasse on the direct payments.

Meanwhile, the mayor reacted to a letter that nine African-American aldermen sent her last week expressing opposition to a plan to have encampments for the homeless. The mayor had proposed to spend $2 million on the encampments in the package, but it was cut. Also, the legislation now says federal money can’t be used in 14 of the 28 wards.

“North St. Louis neighborhoods have more than shouldered our responsibility for sheltering the unhoused,” the letter from the African-American aldermen said. “It’s time for the rest of the city neighborhoods to shelter their responsibility in this citywide, regional, nationwide problem.”

That letter said that any new facilities for the unhoused should be in neighborhoods that don’t have them now.

Jones said she and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D -Mo., were impressed when they viewed similar encampments during a trip to Denver.

Jones explained: “We visited two programs in Denver, safe outdoor spaces, which are intentional encampments for our unhoused that provide wraparound services to help our unhoused neighbors get the resources they need, access to jobs, employment, access to housing vouchers; and they have been very, very successful in how they run the safe outdoor space.”

She added, “Sometimes when we talk about homeless encampments, people get scared and think that it’s some sort of skid row setup.”

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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