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City official, volunteer agree there's ‘more we can all do together’ to aid the unhoused this winter

Irene Agustin (left) and Teka Childress joined Thursday's St. Louis on the Air to discuss homelessness in the St. Louis area during the winter season.
Irene Agustin (left) and Teka Childress joined Thursday's St. Louis on the Air to discuss homelessness in the St. Louis area during the winter season.

Temperatures have yet to reach their coldest levels this season in the St. Louis area, but people experiencing homelessness are already enduring the unforgiving conditions of a winter without shelter.

Director of the St. Louis Department of Human Services Irene Agustin told host Don Marsh on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air that the city last counted “a little over 1,300 [unhoused people] both in shelters and on the street.”

But Teka Childress, founder of the volunteer-powered St. Louis Winter Outreach, suggested that this count could be incomplete, due to how challenging it can be to attain an accurate total.

Agustin added, “With homelessness, it’s kind of fluid within our community.” She explained that calculating precise data requires developing partnerships with other areas of the region, calling it “something the city can’t do alone.”

Childress encouraged listeners to look beyond data points and understand the human stories of those in the community experiencing homelessness, saying, “It’s shameful to leave people outside … Not only are people dying from the cold, but they’re dying in spirit and heart living out there all year long.”

Agustin also noted that homelessness is not the only housing crisis facing members of the community. Many are also living without utilities, leaving them in unheated homes throughout the winter. Addressing these problems on top of sheltering the unhoused, she said, is an additional concern of the city government.

Considering solutions and setting goals

Childress’ ultimate goal is to develop small shelters “where we can get people back into our neighborhoods” rather than large shelters that are unable to address occupants’ individual needs.

She also cited what she called an imbalanced city budget – which dedicates far more funding towards law enforcement and public safety than towards human services.

“We need a public safety net that protects our brothers and sisters, many of whom are in their situation completely without any fault of their own,” said Childress. She attributed their homelessness to a variety of factors, including gentrification, zoning laws and racism.

Though she recognized the support the city and organizations like St. Louis Winter Outreach can provide to the unhoused population, she urged people living in St. Louis area neighborhoods without ties to these groups to also take “responsibility to bring them back into our community.”

Agustin agreed with the notion that ordinary St. Louis citizens should feel responsible for welcoming unhoused people into their communities, asking, “If [people experiencing homelessness] can’t get [support] from their family, what can they get from their community and from their neighborhood?”

“It’s asking people to come and meet folks and get to know them,” said Childress. “They are us; they are no different than us.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Evie Hemphill joined the St. Louis on the Air team in February 2018. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2005, she started her career as a reporter for the Westminster Window in Colorado. Several years later she went on to pursue graduate work in creative writing at the University of Wyoming and moved to St. Louis upon earning an MFA in the spring of 2010. She worked as writer and editor for Washington University Libraries until 2014 and then spent several more years in public relations for the University of Missouri–St. Louis before making the shift to St. Louis Public Radio.
Xandra Ellin is so psyched to join the St. Louis on the Air team as this fall’s production intern! Xandra graduated from Wesleyan University this spring with a degree in Psychology and American Studies. She found ways to incorporate a passion for radio into her academic pursuits, with an honors thesis that dealt with the psychological and sociocultural phenomena that have historically made localized radio a viable mechanism for social change in American communities. Xandra’s career in public radio began at her college radio station, WESU, where she was the Public Affairs Director by day and a music DJ by night. She has also had two production internships prior to this one: one at WYPR in her home city of Baltimore, MD in 2017 and another at WNPR in Hartford, CT in 2018. When she's not at KWMU, Xandra spends her time going for runs, watching bad reality television, and serving up some quality local artisan brews through her side hustle at the Craft Beer Cellar in Clayton.