ST. LOUIS • The Sudanese woman sat on the sidewalk making tea, her wheelchair stacked high with clothes and blankets nearby.
Her husband was next to her, eating sunflower seeds from a bag, cane by his side. The space they had made for themselves near Gravois and Gustine avenues was outlined by a few blankets, under the canopy of a large tree.
This is home for the woman, 51, and her husband, 67. At least it has been for the past several weeks.
The couple have been living in the Tower Grove South neighborhood for at least four years, but never in one location for very long. The refugees became homeless about a year after they arrived in St. Louis in September 2011, and have been reluctant to accept help.
The spot on the sidewalk is where Alvin Ferguson and St. Louis police Officer Larry Dampier found the couple during their recent rounds to check in on the city’s homeless — a population scattered throughout the city, familiar faces living largely invisible lives.
For Ferguson and Dampier, it’s been a four-year partnership. Ferguson is a longtime outreach worker for St. Patrick Center, the region’s largest homeless services provider. Dampier is a well-tattooed police officer whose role in addressing the homeless has transformed.
A few years before he teamed up with Ferguson, Dampier had been tapped by then-Police Chief Sam Dotson to address growing complaints about the homeless, especially a concentration downtown. Dotson said he thought Dampier, who has been with the force for 17 years, had the right temperament to handle a population filled with back stories of hardship, drug abuse and mental illness.
“Being homeless is not a crime, but behaviors associated with it could be,” Dotson said. “We wanted to do something to change the trajectory.”
Complaints from downtown residents and businesses were escalating. Disturbing the peace. Public urination. Drinking alcoholic beverages on streets and sidewalks.
“Things were going good. I was writing four or five summonses a day,” Dampier, 39, said. “But as I was going along, I realized I was writing summonses to the same people. They weren’t going anywhere. The homeless were still there.”
He began meeting with various groups with downtown interests including Bi-State Development Agency, which oversees public buses and trains; Downtown STL and St. Patrick Center, where he met Ferguson.
Ferguson, 62, asked Dampier if he’d like to join him for a ride-along, not just around downtown but throughout the city.
It was eye-opening, Dampier said, and “reconditioned” him to be more of an outreach coordinator than law enforcement officer.
Ferguson said the key is trying to find out what got a homeless person to where they are now.
“There has to be a rapport and getting to know them as human beings,” Ferguson said. “There’s an old saying that applies: ‘Meet people where they are at.’”
Dampier, who like Ferguson is a military veteran, shares that sentiment.
“I like to give these guys three or four warnings first,” Dampier said. “They are not drinking out of pleasure, but from addiction, and it’s a way to dull the pain or act as a substitute for the medication they can no longer afford or don’t have access to.
“But,” he said, “if they become belligerent or are causing a disturbance, or a complaint comes through the department, then discretion is not as wide.”
About a year ago, the city opened Biddle House in an old public market just north of downtown, creating a 24-hour homeless shelter operated by St. Patrick Center and Peter and Paul Community Services.
Its opening was meant to fill several gaps in homeless services, including providing a “coordinated entry” for the homeless to register for services, something that was scattered among dozens of agencies. Biddle’s day shelter replaced similar services offered by the Bridge Outreach, which closed its doors in June 2016. The city also needed a permanent spot for men to stay overnight as pressure mounted from neighbors to close a temporary emergency shelter in the gym of the 12th and Park Recreation Center.
And the city knew that its years-long battle with the Rev. Larry Rice to close his New Life Evangelistic Center was coming to an end and the 200 or so people who stayed there nightly would need services. Rice, who had been operating without an occupancy permit for nearly two years, shut his shelter at 14th and Locust streets in April, after 41 years.
With Rice’s shelter closing imminent, city leaders said there would be enough beds for the homeless throughout the city’s web of agencies. Still, there are people who spend most of their time on the street. The city’s last count of its homeless population, in January, came in at 1,336
Of those, 151 are chronically homeless.
These are the ones Dampier and Ferguson most often bump into, although they are always looking for new faces while checking in with familiar ones.
“Hey, come here!” Dampier shouted to a man from the passenger seat as Ferguson pulled his Ford Explorer over to the curb at a downtown park near Soldiers Memorial.
“Where you been sleeping at?” Dampier asked the man, as he stands a few feet away on the sidewalk.
“Grandma’s house. She’s been letting me stay there.” They give him a bag of snacks. He assures the two men he is doing OK.
“He has not been sleeping at Grandma’s,” Dampier said as they drove away, pointing out the man’s dirty clothes and hair.
“We have to take the temperature of the situation,” Ferguson said. Often, a friendly face and a bottle of water are all that’s needed. Those who have been living on the streets for a long time are often doing so by choice. They don’t want to be part of a system they do not trust, one that has let them down or mistreated them in the past.
But eventually almost everyone comes around, Ferguson said. They get tired of run-ins with the law, have a spiritual epiphany or “guys get too sick and too old to fight it alone. Timing is the key. That’s why it’s important for us to consistently be in touch.”
As Ferguson and Dampier made their rounds recently, they drove by “Soup Alley” in Soulard, where about 25 men were gathered outside Trinity Lutheran Church. Coffee, eggs and soup are regularly served.
“Hey, Michael,” Dampier says to one of the men, who recognized Ferguson’s Ford Explorer and came to the window.
“You got a hoodie? I need one bad,” Michael said to Ferguson.
“We’ll get you one,” Ferguson assured him.
Turning onto Seventh Street, Dampier spotted a man drinking from an airplane liquor bottle at a bus stop. As Ferguson slowed down, the man on the bench tucked the tiny bottle behind him.
“As a police officer, you have to gauge the situation and whether to take action,” Dampier said. With a slight hand motion toward Ferguson, they continued on their route.
They headed toward midtown, and turned onto a tiny road off Vandeventer Avenue near where Highway 40 traffic rushed overhead. They found Dillion, a slender young man working on a bicycle. His encampment is hidden by a half wall and a thick grove of trees, the behemoth Ikea in the distance.
“Dillion is in his early 20s, college-educated. But a few years ago, he fell away. He just wants to be left alone,” Dampier said. “In his mind, this is his reality and way of life.”
Walking through Dillion’s camp, Dampier pointed to the rolls of wire the young man collects to sell for scrap metal.
“He’s a good guy. A little bit of a hoarder,” Dampier said as he looked around. The camp has been cleaned up by city crews several times, including large items such as washing machines, but it quickly fills up within a few days. Dillion wears headphones, a common accessory of the homeless. They help keep the voices at bay, Dampier said.
Driving down South Grand Boulevard, they eyed an older man pushing a Save-A-Lot grocery cart on the sidewalk in front of Compton Hill Reservoir Park. They pulled over to chat.
“Got any potato chips?” the man asked. Dampier nodded and gave him a snack bag, which included chips.
Another stop included the flood wall. Between the wall and the Mississippi River, Dampier and Ferguson found tents, clothes, hypodermic needles and mattresses. No one was there. They might have been shooed away or decided it was time to move on.
“You always have to check these areas,” Ferguson said. “People return.”
They drove by the old Greyhound station north of downtown and pointed to where the fence had been peeled back. Dampier shook his head, calling the vacant building “one large communal Porta-Potty.”
Not far away, they saw two women sitting on a retaining wall. The older woman, Samantha, had two cans of beer by her side. It was 11 a.m.
“This is my first one of the day,” she said as she held up one of the cans, her words badly slurred. “And it’s not even open.”
Samantha had been assaulted a few weeks earlier, and her face was still showing the signs. So was her left arm, a softball sized knot at the elbow, the entire limb reddish-black. A walker was in front of her. Dampier and Ferguson said it was there to help steady her after several drinks.
“When you look at this, this is what gets you up in the morning,” Ferguson said, clearly bothered by the condition of Samantha.
“When are you going back to the hospital?” Dampier asked her.
“Never!” she shouted. “What the (expletive) are they going to tell me now?”
Dampier grew agitated. The two have a history. He is still irked that she used nearby church grounds as a bathroom and that she continues to refuse help. But they drove on. They have done all they can this day. Samantha was intoxicated and angry, but not disturbing anyone.
Ferguson uses a “street sheet” to collect information on people, including name, race, age, gender and any illnesses or behavior that could indicate mental illness or substance abuse. A photo also is taken, if possible.
The priority is to get them into a unified system for housing, but it can be two to three weeks before a spot is ready for them. Once it is, a call is made to the cellphone number listed on their intake sheet, but it’s often not in service.
“So we have to go looking for them,” Ferguson said. The public often wants quick results, he said. But building relationships takes time. Getting people the help they need is not easy. And the people falling into and climbing out of homelessness is an endless cycle.
“It’s one in, two out,” Ferguson said. “A continuous stream of chronically homeless people.”
The number of homeless people in the city has not changed much over the past 10 years. In 2007, the city had about 50 more homeless people than today. There has been, however, a significant drop in the number of chronically homeless people, a hundred fewer than the 258 a decade ago. St. Patrick Center leaders say that is no accident. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development encourages giving priority to the chronically homeless for available housing. And the number of permanent housing options in St. Louis has increased over the past decade.
Dampier and Ferguson supported New Life shutting down, saying the shelter was more of an enabler than a reformer.
“If you want people to sleep on the floor and never offer any service, that’s Larry Rice,” Dampier said. “If you want a place to get two bologna sandwiches a day, that’s Larry Rice. You’ve got to have an endgame.”
But with the closing of Rice’s shelter, it has become harder to keep track of the homeless population. Once concentrated downtown, those who are homeless are now finding refuge throughout the city. Dampier and Ferguson’s rounds take them north to Interstate 270 and Riverview Boulevard and south to Interstate 55 and Loughborough Avenue.
Seeing fewer homeless people around Rice’s shelter “gives the community the illusion that they are gone,” Dampier said. “They didn’t disappear.”
The Sudanese couple, who speak little English and yield little cooperation, remain among Dampier and Ferguson’s biggest challenges. Some in the neighborhood have complained about them but, “I’ve heard from far more asking: ‘What can we do to help?’” said Alderman Megan Ellyia Green.
Dampier said working with the homeless can be a slog, with victories small and slow in coming. But those living on the streets have to be checked on. They have to be told about available services. They have to know someone is looking out for them, even if it means sometimes overlooking the violations that they could be cited for.
“They are like our children at this point,” Dampier said. “You have to talk to them and take care of them.”
Because in the end, he said, “everybody should have a comfortable place to stay. A place to call home.”