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Federal judge refuses to block clearance of homeless encampment in downtown St. Louis

Federal judge refuses to block clearance of homeless encampment in downtown St. Louis

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UPDATED at 4:30 p.m. Saturday with additional details.

ST. LOUIS — A federal judge on Saturday refused to block city officials from clearing a homeless encampment at a downtown park.

U.S. District Judge Sarah E. Pitlyk denied a request for a temporary restraining order filed by the ArchCity Defenders legal advocacy group, writing that their client, Ranata Frank, was unlikely to succeed in the underlying lawsuit.

In her 10-page decision, Pitlyk wrote that the city was not criminalizing homelessness or sleeping in public. At most, she said, it was taking action against an encampment in one location because of its stated concern about a potential risk of spreading the coronavirus. She added that city officials said they wouldn't pursue criminal penalties against those at the camp. And she said that housing was available for everyone currently living there, again citing statements by city officials.

"The Court cannot say that a temporary restraining order prohibiting the City from taking the steps it reasonably deems necessary to slow the spread of Covid-19 serves the public interest," Pitlyk concluded.

The case is not done, however. Pitlyk scheduled another hearing for May 12.

In court testimony Friday, officials said they would begin moving people at the park into housing if the temporary restraining order sought by ArchCity Defenders was not issued. They would then clear the tents and ask anyone left in the park after the 10 p.m. closing time to leave. 

City officials had set a deadline of 10 a.m. Friday for the roughly 50 occupants of the park, saying that the encampment's crowded and unsanitary conditions risked spreading the coronavirus. But they were blocked by the filing of the lawsuit Friday morning.

Frank's lawsuit says that she's been seeking a home since moving to St. Louis in November, and had signed up for space in a hotel three weeks ago but is still waiting for a bed. The suit says clearing the camp would conflict with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says clearing encampments "can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers.” And it says the eviction of Frank and others under threat of arrest would violate the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

It also seeks class-action status to represent others at the camp.

City officials insisted in court and in court documents that they had arranged space in hotels and elsewhere for every occupant of the camp. They denied planning criminal charges or arrests, and said people at the park had been offered coronavirus tests.

People living in the area were offered cab rides Saturday to hotel rooms and shelters.

"We got a number out this morning," said Steve Conway, chief of staff for Mayor Lyda Krewson. Most couples were being put up in hotels, he said, while single men were being sent to shelters, including the Buder Park Recreational Center. Caseworkers were meeting them at each site.

Conway said the city was partnering with agencies such as the St. Patrick Center, City of Hope and the HomeQuest Group to provide food and other resources at a cost "in the hundreds of thousands." The housing is available for 60 days and could be renewed, he said.

"When you look at the conditions and the lack of social distancing here — we're in the middle of a pandemic," Conway said. "We're concerned about individuals and the community."

Advocates for the homeless at Poelker Park claim the city was motivated not by concern but by embarrassment at the location of the camp in the middle of downtown.

"It's bad when the CDC says disbursing these encampments could spread COVID-19," said Sharon Morrow with Tent City STL. "Putting these guys in shelters is not a long-term solution."

About three dozen advocates were distributing food and water Saturday and talking with residents, Morrow said. Her organization had dropped off tents to many in the encampment in early April. 

By the middle of the afternoon Saturday, about 40 tents remained, though some had been abandoned. City officials said they would be collecting and storing tents and other belongings for those who opted to go to a shelter or hotel.

Cody Thomas, 28, said he planned to remain in the small gray tent he shares with his wife across Tucker from the Civil Courts Building. 

"I'm not leaving till everyone else leaves," he said.

Conway said the city did not plan to force anyone out who chooses to stay, but added that he anticipated only about a half-dozen people would not agree to leave by nighttime.

Photographer David Carson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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