The downtown tent encampment near City Hall was never going to be a solution for anything. It would never have been allowed to exist in pre-pandemic times. Under current conditions, its existence was an invitation for a health disaster. Using the coronavirus crisis as a platform to advance a blatant political agenda is shameless, whether it’s done by incumbent politicians seeking election in November or advocates looking for ways to elevate awareness of the homeless problem.
The encampment involving around 100 tent occupants at Poelker Park didn’t arise by accident. It’s obvious from the circumstances that organizers provided tents and helped direct individuals to congregate where they could provide as much visibility as possible. The political agenda couldn’t be clearer when a volunteer group calling itself Tent City STL purports to speak for the park occupants.
U.S. District Judge Sarah E. Pitlyk was correct to deny a temporary restraining order that would have blocked the city from clearing the encampment over the weekend. A lawsuit by the ArchCity Defenders legal advocacy group, asserting that clearing the encampment constituted cruel and unusual punishment, had minimal merit.
Mayor Lyda Krewson was entirely within her right under emergency conditions to order the encampment dismantled to protect the health of all concerned. Krewson’s top priority must be fighting to contain the pandemic. Missouri saw its highest one-day jump in new coronavirus cases on Monday.
The option of providing temporary housing in shelters and hotels was never meant to be anything but a temporary solution under emergency conditions. Spokespeople for Tent City STL, however, reduced the mayor’s motives to a single issue: the embarrassment of a homeless tent encampment so close to City Hall. Downtown commerce is at a standstill. Streets are nearly empty. Sprucing up the city’s image is not on anyone’s priority list right now.
Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards says most of the encampment occupants were placed in single rooms. Families and couples were kept together, while about 10 men accepted dormitory-style shelter housing. For that latter group, along with other group-shelter residents, it will be crucial for Krewson’s administration to closely monitor hygiene and ensure daily cleanings occur to minimize the possibility of virus infections.
Severe budget cuts are coming even though Gov. Mike Parson says Missouri will receive about $9.4 million in federal funds specifically targeted to address homelessness in major urban areas.
The city already was behind on the longstanding goal of ending chronic homelessness. The problem can only get worse as unemployment and evictions skyrocket. A key test of Krewson’s management skills, with mayoral elections a year away, will be making significant progress despite sharply reduced financial resources. And given the political agenda of those pushing tent encampments, the visibility of St. Louis’ homelessness problem only promises to grow.