Thursday: St. Louis’ Homeless Population Faces Uncertainty During Coronavirus Outbreak


This interview will be on “St. Louis on the Air” over the noon hour Thursday. This story will be updated after the show. You can listen live.

While most people have retreated to their homes to shelter in place during the COVID-19 outbreak, the homeless population often doesn’t have that option. Chico Williams, who has been living in one of the tents downtown, is uncertain of where he’ll go next.

On April 6, the city leased part of the former Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home at 3225 North Florissant Avenue and announced plans to move in homeless residents. The building is said to have space for 125 people. Williams, who said the city has “ordained” three shelters for the homeless to stay in, said they’re fitting in far fewer individuals. “They’ve only housed 20 in each one of them,” he claimed.

Beyond that, in order to access the buildings, Williams said unhoused residents generally have to show up at 6 p.m. and leave by 6 a.m. the next day. “When you’re back out in the street at 6 a.m. in the morning, you’re left with the dilemma on what you’re going to do,” he explained. “There’s nothing open. You can’t go to any of the outreach programs because they are all closed.”

For that reason, he said, he plans to stay in the tents.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden issued a guidance order to his department on March 25, telling officers to refrain from clearing encampments during the spread of COVID-19. People staying in the tents assumed they could stay put.

But then, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the city reversed course. On April 9, officers woke tent residents at 14th and Market Street at 4 a.m. and told them to leave.

“They really don’t want us there,” Williams said. “They are intimidating us to leave the park. I don’t feel that is right, because that’s the only place we have.”

Since then, Alex Cohen, one of the leaders of grassroots collective moment #TentMissionSTL, said the police have given conflicting messages on whether the homeless should stay or leave the area.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske will talk to Cohen about what’s going on in the tent encampments downtown, the aftermath of the April 9 shakeup and what the grassroots collective is doing next to ensure the safety of the homeless population in St. Louis. 

Williams will also join the discussion and give a first-hand account of what he’s experienced during the coronavirus outbreak in the city.

Should the city leave encampments alone during the pandemic? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the Air Facebook group, and help inform our coverage.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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