A hard shake of her tent at 4 in the morning startled Adell Cunningham.
The 24-year-old lives at a homeless encampment at 14th and Market streets in downtown St. Louis.
It was Thursday and police and city parks employees were trying to clear the tent city. The encampment has been up since April 3.
“They woke me up and told me, ‘you’re going to have to leave,’” Cunningham says.
The attempt to clear the park was unsuccessful. It came just days after city officials said they’d be following guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and not disturbing any homeless encampments during the coronavirus pandemic.
Police Chief John Hayden issued his own guidance on the topic on March 25, saying in an email to the department: “According to CDC recommendations,” Hayden wrote, “Officers should refrain from clearing encampments during the spread of COVID-19.”
Still, the raid by the city was not unexpected.
That’s because for a couple of days, police had been stopping by the two camps on Market Street — there’s another, smaller one, directly across from City Hall — and telling the people who live there that they have to leave, despite promises from Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration to the contrary.
The city, says Krewson spokesman Jacob Long, has decided to treat the homeless encampments along Market Street differently than some of the other ones in the city.
“It’s more of a pop-up tent encampment that popped up in the past few days,” Long said. “They are occupying a city park and the curfew rules apply to them.”
Long says city officials have made several attempts to try to get the people living in the two encampments to go to shelters. He doesn’t deny that the Thursday morning event was an attempt to clear the park but says it “was largely peaceful.” He said he didn’t know who ordered the camp cleared.
Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards didn’t return a call seeking comment. A police spokeswoman said that officers were there at the request of the parks and recreation department, not in an enforcement capacity but to keep the peace.
“We have been trying to make the case that we can get them into a bed, and we wish they would take us up on that,” Long says.
On Wednesday, Alex Cohen, an outreach volunteer who regularly brings food and water and other supplies to the encampments, happened by the one at Tucker Boulevard and Market Street when he saw a police officer talking to some of the people there.
“As soon as I pulled out my phone and started recording, the officer’s demeanor really changed,” Cohen told me. The officer told the people they were going to have to clear the camp by the next morning. Cohen called other outreach volunteers, including John Bonacorsi, an attorney from ArchCity Defenders, and people stayed at the camps all night, prepared to help the people living there if trouble came.
It did, before the sun came up.
There were two police vehicles, about eight or nine parks workers, and three or four city pickup trucks, said Steven Hoffman, a law student at St. Louis University.
Hoffman and other outreach volunteers started recording and taking photos. In one recording, a police officer says, “We were told you guys were leaving.”
That’s not the case, said Marcus Hunt, a 29-year-old who has been living at 14th and Market for about a week.
“We’re not leaving,” Hunt said.
Until this week, the city’s position was they wouldn’t be disturbed. That’s because staying in place during the pandemic is better than having unhoused people dispersed throughout the city. The tent encampments exist, Hunt says, because there aren’t enough beds in the city. That’s the case, some homeless advocates believe, even after the city announced it had reached a deal to rent out the former Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home in north St. Louis. Officials from the mayor’s office told reporters that there would be space for up to 125 people there.
But the contract only calls for 26 rooms, and the outreach volunteers say those are already taken.
Long said the city has amended the contract to make about 50 rooms available in an adjacent tower to the facility. Those rooms are large enough, he says, to fit two people per room.
Hunt says he believes he’s better off staying where he is.
“We are all not sick,” Hunt says. That’s why the CDC suggests they should stay in place, if there is no other safe place for them to go. “The danger comes when we have to go back out into the community.”
Normally at this time of year, Kathy Acre is busy gathering donations to fill hundreds of waterproof backpacks that her nonprofit Back@You hands out each fall. Instead, she and others are trying to get single tents to donate to help people stay in place and safe during the pandemic.
She was devastated to find out Thursday that the efforts of volunteers might be countermanded by the city’s decision to try to clear the camp.
So was Hoffman.
“The idea seems to be to just have the unhoused disperse into the community, which is the exact opposite of the CDC guidelines,” he said. “It’s outrageous. I can’t imagine what they were thinking.”