COVID-19: No Shelter in Place

By Mary Adcock

April 12, 2020

SAINT LOUIS – In the early hours of Friday, April 9, unhoused residents of the tent encampment in downtown St. Louis woke to police and parks employees shaking their tents, expecting the group to immediately disperse and ready to confiscate their tents.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police raid a homeless encampment in downtown St. Louis. Courtesy of Steven Hoffman.

St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden said in an email to the department on March 25, “According to CDC recommendations, officers should refrain from clearing encampments during the spread of COVID-19.” A few days before the raid, city officials also said they would not disturb the encampments. The Centers for Disease Control advised against disbanding camps during the pandemic, instead recommended supporting them with toilets and places to wash their hands. While activists have been involved in dispersing food, masks, hand sanitizer, tents and setting up hand washing stations in St. Louis and beyond, other cities such as Long Beach confiscated hand washing stations.

According to national statistics, about 40 percent of those living homelessly are expected to contract coronavirus, with about 15 percent of those needing to be hospitalized. That’s about 400 people in St. Louis. Nationally, 3,400 people living homelessly are expected to die from COVID-19.

“We are woefully underprepared to address the impact of COVID-19 on the unhoused,” the chairman of St. Louis’ Board of Health, William Ross said.

The reason St. Louis officials cited for the raid on the encampment was that folks were breaking curfew and on public property. They were there to “keep the peace”. This begs the question, where are unhoused people allowed to exist, in a pandemic no less? If people are not allowed on public property and they do not have the means to own personal property, where can they go? It is difficult to follow international public health guidelines to stay indoors when someone has nowhere to go. Instead of trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus, as usual, the city of St. Louis is more concerned about criminalizing homelessness. Resources that could have been spent securing shelter for one of the most vulnerable populations in the city. Instead, police spent the days before the raid driving by, photographing and filming the residents of the camp. This did not improve the tensions and distrust between the groups.

Missouri Highway Patrol surveils the homeless encampment in downtown St. Louis. Courtesy of Doyle Murphy. 

“The tent encampment exists because there aren’t enough beds in the city,” Marcus Hunt said, who lives without housing in St. Louis. Hunt and others in the camp are concerned about outsiders, such as the police, bringing coronavirus into the camp. The officers involved in the raid were not wearing gloves or masks.

After weeks of dragging their feet, the City of St. Louis has finally decided to rent out the former Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home in north St. Louis, a space with housing for no more than 125 people.  

Cities are now facing two public health crises-homelessness and COVID-19. However some are dealing with it more humanely than St. Louis. In California, 15,000 empty trailers, motel and hotel rooms are to provide shelter for those living homelessly. Boston has built a makeshift hospital with 1,000 beds for their unhoused population.

“This pandemic has exposed the structural inequalities and weaknesses in our health care and housing systems and policies, Bobby Watts of the National Care for the Homeless Council said. “The same things we are doing now to reduce the epidemic are the things that we should have always been doing.”