“We are Not Your Piggy Bank”: Ruling Class Forces Volunteers to Mobilize Operation Winter Haven in STL

Houseless people gather around steam vent during 2019 Polar Vortex. Image: Bill Greenblatt (UPI)

By: Comrade Mary

ST. LOUIS: Since Sunday February 7, a coalition of more than 200 volunteers and 11 churches and shelters collaborated to form Winter Haven, opening 250 beds over the last two weeks during freezing weather by opening motels and pop-up shelters at churches. “I’ve never seen a coalition come together like this before,” Teka Childress, founder of St. Louis Winter Outreach said. St. Patrick Center, Horizon Housing and Tent Mission STL partnered to open a 24-hour safe haven site. Safe havens do not have requirements, and accept anyone. This means regardless of gender, substance abuse or mental illness, unhoused people are welcome to stay there. It has been five years since St. Louis had a shelter like this. Volunteers saw the cruelty inflicted, seeing people kicked out of hospitals and jails onto the freezing streets because of their mental illnesses. 

“We saw severe cases of frostbite all week. With temperatures so low, getting banned from shelters can be a death sentence,” Katy Beth Doman said, a volunteer with Tent Mission STL, a homeless outreach group in St. Louis. Over the week, volunteers heard a resounding, “You saved our lives” from guests at the shelters. The shelter situation in St. Louis has been precarious, causing frustration among outreach workers. Without a local government that prioritizes the lives of homeless people, instead prioritizing the needs and bottom lines of developers, gentrifiers, and large corporations,  it has fallen largely on the shoulders of oftentimes working class volunteers to provide resources to people on the streets. “Why are we-a volunteer organization-working 60 to 80 hours a week?” Liam John of Tent Mission STL said. “Why are we the last resort?” The city of St. Louis has seen a decrease in dedicated shelters over the years, and lacks a real 24-hour shelter. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, advocates have requested CARES Act funds for a safe haven shelter. In response, Mayor Lyda Krewson’s administration has said, “We’re not your personal piggy bank.” This came after at least five evictions of homeless tent encampments since the pandemic began. Lyda Krewson has come under fire for a variety of crimes against the people, which led to her declaration to not run for an additional term after a wave of protests targeting her home and city hall demanding her resignation last year. None of the current mayoral candidates, Tishaura Jones, Lewis Reed, Andrew Jones, or Cara Spencer, have a real plan to serve the people, because all four candidates simply traffic in the struggles of the people while ignoring their demands. This is the behavior of all ruling class politicians, once again demonstrating how the electoral system is a farce.

Despite the challenges and frustration with local and federal government, there was mutual aid from the shelters and churches that opened their doors. People were contributing what they could. As the sun came back out and the snow melted, motel vouchers ended, and pop-up shelters closed. Volunteers drove people back to their previous encampments, sending them back with their bags full of supplies to survive the coming spring. Tim Huffman, a professor at St. Louis University and homeless advocate noted, “Sadness and frustration at the temporary and incomplete nature of the support we provided.” “We need low-barrier shelter 365 days a year,” Doman said. “To do that, we need an administration that actually values human life.”

As we have seen in St. Louis this week, mutual aid can do more for a community than the government. There has always been a revolutionary spirit in St. Louis of working class people helping each other through struggle, and throughout bourgeois administrations, we know we can rely on the people for survival. Mutual aid, however, has its limitations, namely, the redistribution of limited resources among workers and other exploited/oppressed classes. Mutual aid can not make revolution, only organizing and arming the people for class struggle can do so. Mutual aid, furthermore, must be really mutual, meaning taking place through bonds of solidarity among proletarians and furthering the class struggle leading to the seizure of power by the Communist Party, which is the Party of the working class. 

Ultimately, though, revolutionaries know that only Communism can end the houseless crisis for good by collectivizing all housing stock and distributing it as needed. It is essential for revolutionaries to continue to integrate with these mutual aid efforts while pointing out the insufficiency of these efforts (which in many cases amount to charity, not real mutual aid). Mutual aid and service provision efforts are good also for getting contacts and conducting social investigation and class analysis, and this is how revolutionaries should orient towards them. FTP-STL members have been conducting active propaganda among volunteers and those served by the program, pointing out the insufficiencies of the capitalist system and the distortion of the mutual aid concept into charity, pointing out the need for organization of homeless people for class struggle, and gaining valuable contacts and SICA material. 

Homeless organizer Marcus Hunt, known to the people as “Biggie”, said that the unhoused haven’t been protected by the CDC moratorium order for over a year, meaning that the STLMPD is able, legally, to break up encampments and continue their deeds in the service of the ruling class. An FTPSTL comrade who has been houseless raises the idea of a homeless union to serve as a combat organization and struggle against evictions and abuses of the houseless by the police. As the struggle between classes continues, the houseless will become more creative out of necessity. Communists should be prepared to support squats and provide eviction defense as needed and on short notice. 

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