ST. LOUIS — The continuing spread of the coronavirus is complicating efforts this year to provide emergency overnight shelter for the homeless who struggle to stay warm as the weather turns frigid.
“I think it’s going to be a very hard year,” said Teka Childress, longtime head of the nonprofit Winter Outreach.
On bitterly cold nights, Winter Outreach volunteers drive to places where the homeless bunker down, such as abandoned buildings and dumpsters. They distribute gloves and blankets and try to convince them to go someplace warm for the night.
“We’re going to start winter with very few beds available,” Childress said. “We’re going to have to bring blankets to a lot of people and pray for an easy start to winter.”
Last January, the city counted 1,260 people who were homeless, with fewer than 200 of those considered “unsheltered,” spending most nights on the streets and not in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. But the point-in-time count can be an imperfect measurement, Childress said, because some homeless people refuse to participate in a survey.
St. Louis County and city officials coordinate with nonprofits to find emergency shelter.
“The average person who is unhoused doesn’t have access to quality health care,” said Yusef Scoggin, director of the county’s office of family and community services. “Oftentimes their medical needs are only being addressed or recognized in crisis … couple that with the moment we’re in, which is the COVID-19 pandemic, and you understand this is a powder keg. That’s why this population is more vulnerable and is even more critical in terms of providing emergency placement.”
The pandemic is leading shelters to take precautions to limit the spread of the virus, resulting in fewer beds. Some volunteers who typically shuttle the homeless or supervise emergency shelters have come off the roster this year due to their own health concerns.
“It’s very frustrating but we knew coming in that all of the shelter providers were having difficulties for a variety of reasons,” said Stephen Conway, chief of staff to Mayor Lyda Krewson. “Volunteers are older, volunteers are scared.”
In years past, Winter Outreach has had six or eight or even a dozen shelters available. This year it has three.
“Often when we had so many (shelters), a number of them would only do it one night a week,” Childress explained. “We couldn’t have that many moving parts in the middle of COVID-19. It’s not safe for people.”
The city in recent months has added 245 beds for the homeless for a total of 2,400 city-supported beds, officials said, and an additional 170 beds are expected to be available in December. There could be 80 beds added early next year, Conway said.
But expanding that number has been tricky. The men’s shelter, Biddle House, for example, can usually add 50 beds during the winter. This year it will have to cut that number to 25 in an effort to prevent virus transmission.
Conway said some of the federal coronavirus relief money that was distributed after the pandemic began will be used to help shelters expand or improve facilities so they can meet federal health guidelines. City funding has also been funneled to mortgage assistance and landlord mediation, he said.
“It’s way cheaper to prevent someone from becoming homeless than to try and take care of their needs once they are homeless,” he said.
Scoggin said county shelters have been operating at increased capacity since March, when the pandemic hit. The county has about 250 shelter beds, he said, and anticipates adding at least 25. The county’s emergency shelter beds are made available based on need, he said, rather than nightly temperatures.
City services such as warming buses are made available once the temperature falls below 32 degrees. Winter Outreach sends volunteers to pick up the homeless once the temperature is forecast to fall below 20 degrees, or below 25 degrees if there’s snow or sleet expected. Childress said masks are provided.
“It’s difficult to transport people safely (because of) COVID-19,” she said. “Normally we pick people up and they just pile in the car. Now, how many can be in a car? Everything about it is daunting. We have a plan, but it’s not easy.”
Childress said that if people want to help, they can donate blankets and drop them off at MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse at 3606 Arsenal Street. But she primarily needs volunteers to help with the operation of overnight shelters. (Those interested in helping can email Childress at email@example.com.)
“I’m anxious,” Childress said. “I’m always afraid someone is going to die during the winter. And it’s the worst thing in the world when it happens. We want to do everything to prevent it. (But) adding to the concern about keeping people safe and alive and housed this winter is trying to protect the people with great hearts keeping them safe. It’s just a daunting challenge.”