ST. LOUIS • In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, James K. Turner was hobbling around downtown with a cane and backpack full of medications when he stopped in his tracks for a chance encounter at good fortune.
A discarded coin lay on the edge of 14th Street, near Peabody Opera House.
“Penny on heads what will you bring me tomorrow?” Turner asked, scooping up the 1-cent piece and throwing it over his shoulder in superstition.
“Nothing,” he answered.
There was reason to be bitter. He couldn’t get a bed at the Biddle Housing Opportunities Center, the city’s new homeless shelter for single men, despite multiple attempts. He’s been on the streets since his housing fell through a few days after being released from the Missouri Department of Corrections on Aug. 28.
At 52, Turner said most of his family in south St. Louis and southeast Missouri are gone. He’s burned bridges with the few who remain.
He said he wants to right some wrongs before he dies.
He said he was mentally and terminally ill. As a diabetic suffering from hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, he said he had been in and out of multiple hospitals since September. A bandage on his side was leftover from having several quarts of fluid drained.
Police officer Larry Dampier and outreach worker Alvin Ferguson team up to forge relationships with homeless St. Louisans.
He was discharged from Barnes-Jewish Hospital on Monday after being treated as an inpatient for abdominal pain, anemia and gastrointestinal bleeding, according to paperwork he provided.
“Make notes and to-do lists so that you don’t forget things,” the discharge note mentions. “Take it slow when getting around and always use your cane for extra balance. Take care!”
Turner said a Barnes-Jewish caseworker called Biddle House on his behalf to get a shelter bed. But nothing opened up Monday and Tuesday. Nor was he allowed a bed when he said he tried several times in September.
Weeks before cold weather sets in, Biddle House appears to be booked.
“I was lucky,” said Dedric Warren, 46, who has been staying there since summer. “It took me four days to get a space.”
David White, 55, also homeless, is grateful for his bed. Since mid-July he’s been at Peter and Paul Community Services in Soulard, the city’s only other emergency shelter for single men.
“It’s beautiful over there,” said White.
St. Patrick Center and Peter and Paul run Biddle House for the city.
The Post-Dispatch spent much of 24 hours with Turner to better understand the availability of emergency shelter in St. Louis. A reporter accompanied him to St. Patrick Center on Tuesday morning to inquire about a bed for the night. A case worker said it has been hard to meet demand since the Rev. Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center closed its downtown shelter on Locust Street.
A window attendant at St. Patrick Center handed Turner a one-page resource guide and a small piece of paper with “HOUSING HELPLINE” printed on it. Homeless people are supposed to call (314) 802-5444 every morning to check available shelter space within the support network of nonprofits that operate under the city’s Continuum of Care.
Nobody immediately answered a call to the number Tuesday morning. An operator who returned a message 30 minutes later said there was no room for Turner. She encouraged him to use the daytime services at Biddle House, which he’d been doing.
Turner had oatmeal for breakfast Tuesday and somehow missed lunch and dinner. Shortly after 6 p.m., a man working the front door shooed him and a few others away. One woman was talking to herself and walking barefoot through a puddle in the street.
“No loitering in front of the building, people,” said the man, who declined to be interviewed and retreated behind locked doors.
The dormitory beds were full but there were four open slots in the infirmary. Warren, the man who’d been there since summer, said something should have been done to help Turner.
“I was on a cot in the kitchen for two days,” Warren said. “They could have gotten him a cot.”
Turner suspected that people who hadn’t made the same effort he had in recent weeks were getting special treatment. But it didn’t matter now.
He accepted a few cigarettes, a bottle of water and well-wishes from a friend and set out on the streets for the night.
“I am trying to get my mind to work, figure out what I got to do,” he said.
He needed to monitor his legs and drink plenty of water, yet not get arrested for urinating in public, which was a constant obstacle throughout the night.
“My legs are already swelling up,” he said.
He walked past empty buildings.
“Why don’t they put homeless people in there?” he asked.
St. Patrick Center spokeswoman Kelly Peach said Biddle House has provided 24,138 emergency beds since the shelter opened Aug. 22, 2016. She could not provide information about how many people are turned away.
She said Biddle House has 94 dormitory beds and seven spaces in the infirmary. She said the capacity doubles for overflow during select cold and hot nights.
“No one was turned away during winter overflow,” she said.
She said regular days are handled on a first-come, first-served basis.
“When we reach those capacities, we have to turn men away,” she said. “As I understand, standard beds at Biddle are basically full each night. Medical beds are not always full and do require referrals.”
It’s unclear why Turner couldn’t get a bed in the infirmary.
Instead, on Tuesday night he sat for a long time beside the lake at Union Station. He was one of a few handfuls of people there to see what’s billed as a “multimillion dollar breathtaking fire, water and light music show.” On the hour until 9 p.m., flames shot 25 feet in the air, from flower-shaped pods on the water.
He slept a few winks on a nostalgic train platform left from what used to be one of the busiest train stations in the world. Facing a light drizzle, he moved on to the bus station. Then past the Peabody Opera House and other places.
Still several hours left to kill until Biddle House opened for breakfast at 6 a.m. Wednesday, he guessed his odds.
“Out of a 100 people who walk by me,” he said, “maybe two will understand.”
On Wednesday, the Post-Dispatch returned to the St. Patrick Center and Biddle House to inquire further about bed space and Turner’s options. They wouldn’t speak about his specific case because of privacy concerns. But hours later, Turner said he was told he would have a cot for the night.