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Attack on St. Louis Homeless Sneaks Under a Dark Cloud

The sub-freezing temperature was dropping.  As the snow began to fall, many felt their hands were too cold to hold signs during the December 17 action.  Two dozen had answered the Green Party call to picket the mayor of St. Louis for his efforts to close down New Life Evangelistic Center, the city’s homeless “shelter-of-last-resort.”  They knew things would be much worse for those forced to sleep in the cold if the shelter were shut down.  The action was one in a series of efforts to draw attention to the city government’s continual onslaught against those with no place to go.

The roots of homelessness go much deeper than cold blooded insensitivity of Republicans.  It reflects a bi-partisan attack on the poorest of the poor.  Efforts to shut down New Life are spearheaded by Francis Slay, the Democratic Party mayor who has championed charter schools over public ones, stymied efforts to create a meaningful Civilian Oversight Board for police violence, and always finds millions upon millions of dollars for sports stadiums while funding for homeless shelters are never adequate.

In 1976 Rev. Larry Rice began New Life in a part of downtown St. Louis where real estate was cheap.  He expanded the number of homeless he could house to over 200 per night and became somewhat of a folk legend.  But in recent years, buildings near New Life gentrified.  Even though the shelter was there first and newcomers were quite aware of who their neighbors would be, many of them acted as if the loft owners had assured them that they could get rid of the unwanted.

As rents went up, property values around New Life soared.  To realize their investments, downtown landowners sought out friendly politicians.

Mayor Slay became their knight in shining armor as he intensified efforts to drive the homeless from the streets of downtown.  In May 2015 the mayor’s political machine revoked the shelter’s occupancy permit.  Fighting back, attorney’s for New Life were able to keep it open.  Then, on November 9, 2016, the St. Louis Building Commission sent Rice a cease-and-desist order giving him 30 days to shut down.

Homeless shelters are one chapter in a long story of depriving people of a place to live.   Being shoved off of land when its value goes up is a recurring theme in the history of this hemisphere.  For centuries, indigenous peoples have suffered the “extraction curse” when their homes are discovered to be located atop gold, silver, tin, lead or adjacent to a potential hydroelectric dam.

This was not lost on several St. Louisans who recently returned from opposing the Dakota Access Pipleline (DAPL).  Corporate executives are eager to sacrifice sacred lands and clean water so they can transport fossil fuel across the US for sale to distant countries.  The Mississippi Standing Action Group joined the Green Party picket because of the painful similarity between devaluing native peoples and demonizing the homeless.

As temperatures plummeted, the mayor’s campaign of harassment against New Life swung into full gear.  “It’s obscene for Francis Slay to interfere with people trying to bring donations in the cold of winter,” observes Green Party spokeswoman Barbara Chicherio.  “Slay has ordered parking meters to be removed from the entire block in front of New Life.  I have witnessed police telling people that they can no longer stop their cars to bring food and blankets inside.  They have even used taxpayer money to put up signs in front of New Life telling people to take their donations somewhere else.”

While the legal offensive has been the most visible, multiple Democratic Party politicians have joined in painting negative images of New Life.  Slay has been the most successful at pulling corporate media under his umbrella.  Stories of good work done by New Life have almost disappeared from TV and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as they are replaced by reports confirming what the Democratic Party mayor wants the public to believe.  The newspeak includes charges that New Life …

1/ must be shut down because it does not comply with codes for building permits;
2/ is responsible for a wave of K-2 (synthetic marijuana) overdoses; and,
3/ can easily be eliminated because other shelters are able to handle all of the area homeless.

Each of these allegations is a bit problematic.  As the New Life attorney notes, building codes and ordinances “are so vague and ambiguous that it is impossible to comply.”  The Board of Public Services, which revoked New Life’s occupancy permit had no jurisdiction because New Life is not a hotel as it claimed.  Additionally, the city told New Life that it had to obtain signatures of approval by those living nearby in order to stay open, which was highly discriminatory.  When the city opened the $2.5 million Biddle House in August 2016, it met with opposition from neighbors.  But it is a model program of the city and was not required to obtain signatures from neighbors as was New Life.

The charge that New Life is somehow responsible for K-2 overdoses is the most recent in a string of accusations that the shelter is responsible for drinking, fighting and public urination.  Though these activities occur throughout downtown St. Louis, corporate politicians spend zero time demanding the closure of bars and sports stadiums.  The idea that public urination could be greatly reduced if there were public bathrooms seems to have never occurred to them.

As the mayor’s charges against New Life became more shrill, the press sensationalized K-2 overdoses.  TV and print media painted lurid pictures that “people started to drop,” they were “staggering, nearly passed out on their feet,” and some “slipped into zombie-like states of near catatonia.”  Report after report gave exclusive attention to overdoses in front of New Life, as if the 67 year old Rice was the devil himself, enticing people to come to the shelter so he could drug them into oblivion.

What the press failed to mention was that the 158 emergency calls during the first week of November were made from all over downtown St. Louis and were not restricted to those milling around in front of New Life.  Reports also failed to note that city police refused to respond to 911 calls made by New Life that dealers were distributing K-2 near the shelter, raising the question of whether some local politicians were themselves behind the overdoses.

Many homeless shelters in St. Louis are doing great work.  City hall claims that this means that New Life will not be missed if it disappears.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch parroted this line in its November 10, 2016 editorial proclaiming “the homeless no longer need access to the New Life Evangelistic Center to meet their needs.”  A core problem is that the multiple shelters the Post refers to focus on specific groups of homeless people in order to receive grants.  Anyone who does not fit into the category for a given shelter cannot get into it.

This is called a “Continuum of Care” model that I came to know well during my 25 years working as a Research Psychologist for the Community Placement Program of St. Louis State Hospital.  The Continuum of Care approach was designed to provide housing for the severely mentally ill.  When I first heard it being used, mental health workers spoke of people “falling through the cracks,” which meant they did not find a place to live because they did not fit into any of the various housing criteria.  By the time I left in 2006, mental health workers referred to patients “falling through the chasms” because the number of mentally ill with no place to stay had become enormous.  Many ended up at New Life.

Despite claims that other shelters can absorb those going to New Life, the reality for those who suddenly find themselves without a home is quite different.  When people call another shelter, they are likely to find …

+ that shelter has restrictions (such as only women with children) which exclude them; or

+ that shelter has a waiting period before they can get a bed; or

+ they need a diagnosis before being allowed in; or

+ they can only leave a phone number for an agency which never calls them back; or

+ the shelter decided that the cold is “excessive” only when it is 15 degrees or lower; or

+ they are told that the only shelter which can meet their emergency needs is New Life.

New Life is the St. Louis “shelter-of-last-resort” because it provides places to stay for those who cannot get a Continuum of Care bed.  It can do this because it is funded 100% by donations and does not rely on writing grants that specify what type of homeless it will accept.

In April 2017 St. Louis will have an election to replace the outgoing Francis Slay.  Democratic Party Alderperson Lyda Krewson is the favorite of the downtown investors to become the new mayor.  She promises to shut her eyes tightly to the plight of those falling into the chasm of homelessness.  When addressing downtown loft dwellers about New Life in early November, she insisted that the city should shut it down and “put a lock on the place.”

In contrast, Green Party mayoral candidate Johnathan McFarland believes that “New Life must be kept open because it is the only shelter in St. Louis which takes in homeless people in truly desperate situations.  It is obviously needed because so many people come there.”

While Trump and the Republicans are more blatant in their rhetoric, the slick wordsmithing of Democratic Party politicians like Francis Slay and Lyda Krewson have equally brutal effects.  As capitalism sinks into a feeding frenzy to extract profits from every acre of native land and urban real estate, it uses whatever politician it finds most useful.  In St. Louis and Standing Rock, its focus is on those who have the least power to resist.

The crystal ball of homelessness in the US reveals a dark cloud.  US urban patterns are distinct:  Its inner cities have been poverty centers while the more well-to-do populate suburbs.  In most other parts of the world, the poor live in suburbs, far away from the services they need for survival, and the well-off populate the urban core.  But increasing numbers of the financially secure are moving into downtown areas and the pocketbooks of financial investors whisper that it’s time to drive out the poor.

Efforts to remove the impoverished and homeless from downtown areas will continue as surely as will efforts to destroy safety nets and environmental gains of the last century.  Protecting the homeless is a core part of defending social security, medicare, medicaid, public schools, child labor laws, parks and indigenous lands.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Green Social Thought.org    

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Don Fitz is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, where this article first appeared. He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. His articles on politics and the environment have appeared in Monthly ReviewZ Magazine, and Green Social Thought, as well as several online publications.    

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