St. Louis Moved Homeless People Into Hotels, Putting Some In Danger: 'We Were An Eyesore To Them'
When Megan Place and Cody Thomas arrived in St. Louis on the cusp of the pandemic last March, they hoped the city might offer the chance for a fresh start.
The couple had been couch surfing for about a year, Place said, after the trailer park where they were living in Camdenton, Missouri, shut down. Desperate to find work, they headed east, hauling overstuffed suitcases and backpacks.
They lived in a storage locker for about a month, sleeping on piles of blankets and flattened cardboard — before eventually moving to an encampment across the street from St. Louis City Hall. But a few weeks later, in late April, city officials tied an eviction notice to their tent and told them they had to leave. “We were like, ‘But where are we going to go?’” remembered Place.
The couple is one of dozens who were forced to relocate by a city intent on isolating the homeless population at the start of the pandemic.
In the days leading up to the scheduled eviction, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson stressed that the encampment where Place and Thomas lived, along with another down the street, were unsafe for the people living there, particularly during a pandemic. “It is a pretty serious health threat to have these individuals mixing it up, not practicing social distancing,” Krewson said during an April 29 press conference, calling the camps a “high-risk health situation.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against clearing encampments during the pandemic, a caution the city’s own advisory group of homeless service providers echoed. Despite that, St. Louis officials moved forward with the eviction in early May, relocating residents to temporary housing across the city, including the Red Roof Inn, Mark Twain Hotel and Western Inn.
To date, St. Louis has allocated more than $5.7 million of federal funding for the shelters — the city’s highest individual pandemic-related expenditure, according to publicly available data.
Nearly a year later, officials maintain that people were safer at these shelters than the encampments — and have said that any form of shelter was preferable to living on the street. But an investigation from St. Louis Public Radio in collaboration with APM Reports found the city may have put residents in even greater jeopardy, by placing them at hotels with a history of criminal violence, drug activity and unsanitary living conditions.
Public records reveal some shelter residents were the victims of violent attacks, including a pregnant woman who was punched in the stomach last June while walking to the Red Roof Inn lobby. At the Mark Twain Hotel, a low-income apartment building downtown, another resident was transported to the hospital after he was assaulted and knocked unconscious.
Others, like Place and Thomas, narrowly escaped dangerous situations at the hotel shelters.
In early May, as city workers removed the last of the tents from the encampments, the couple moved to a city-leased room at the Red Roof Inn near Interstate 44. At first, Place said, it was a relief “not having to sleep on the ground, not having to be freezing cold.”
But a few weeks later, an incident at the hotel left her rattled.
A raucous party upstairs had kept her awake that night, Place said, so she stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. “I seen somebody running down the balcony, so I hurried up and went into my room,” she recalled. “Then bam-bam-bam, gunshots. I’m deaf in my left ear from a swimming accident, but it was so loud that it made my ear ring. It was that close.”
The next morning, she said, the concrete outside their door was pockmarked with bullet holes.
Our investigation found a history of violence and crime at these hotel and apartment buildings that predates the city’s shelter program.
Police reports from 2019 show multiple crimes occurred at the hotel shelters, including rape, armed robbery and assault at the Red Roof Inn. There were four assaults that year at the Western Inn, as well as a rape and two assaults at the Mark Twain Hotel.
Law enforcement and paramedics also responded to each of the three locations for drug overdoses in 2019, according to public records from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and St. Louis Fire Department. There were eight opioid overdoses at the Western Inn, while at the Mark Twain Hotel, paramedics responded for a single overdose in 2019.
Ankit Patel, president of Grand and Broadway Development Inc., the company that owns the Western Inn, did not respond to an interview request.
For Amos Harris, owner of the Mark Twain Hotel, keeping drug dealers out of the downtown apartment building is a constant battle.
“Drugs are just a scourge,” said Harris, who has installed cameras and hired security in recent years. “If there's somebody in there that's starting to deal, that's just a huge problem. The homeless are a very vulnerable population, so they get preyed on by low-level drug dealers.”
Harris decided to lease about 20 rooms to the city last spring, after he said officials personally contacted him “frantic” to find space for the people at the encampments. But the apartment building, he added, “is not the right place for the homeless population long term.”
The Red Roof Inn also has a reputation as a target for drug dealers, said Shanee Awuh, who moved to a city-leased room at the hotel last spring with her three teenage children. Awuh said they personally witnessed drug transactions at the hotel and questioned why the city selected the location, given that people experiencing homelessness may be struggling with untreated substance use disorders.
“The Red Roof was never a safe place to be,” said Awuh, who became homeless in 2018 after she was released from prison. “When you’re really trying to get off the streets and get yourself together, don’t choose no place with drugs, because you ain’t gonna do nothing but fail and go back down that wrong road.”
In June, the Red Roof Inn decided not to renew its lease with the City of St. Louis, and the program at that location shut down. The mayor’s chief of staff, Steve Conway, confirmed the Red Roof Inn had ended its contract with the city but did not specify a reason why. Darryl Fenner, regional vice president of operations for Red Roof Inns, declined an interview request by email, saying they “typically do not discuss business matters where third parties are involved.”
While shelter residents worried about exposure to crime and drugs, public records show there were also sanitary concerns at the hotel shelters. All three locations had a record of bedbug complaints, according to data from the St. Louis Citizen Service Bureau. Since 2016, the Mark Twain Hotel has had 13 separate bedbug complaints, while the Red Roof Inn and Western Inn had four and two complaints in that time period, respectively.
Whether city officials were aware of the issues at the hotel locations before selecting them as homeless shelters remains unclear. When asked in an interview, Conway did not directly answer the question, saying they used the spaces available to them and adding that a hotel room is “way more desirable than living on the street.”
“We were comfortable with those units that we rented to house the people in a way better place, healthier, safer, more sanitary conditions than where they were,” Conway said, referring to the original downtown encampments the city disbanded in early May.
But police records obtained by St. Louis Public Radio from March 2020, the month before the encampments formed, to May 2020 when they were cleared, show officers responded to the two camps along Market Street only for minor incidents, including traffic violations and disturbances. Still, the mayor’s spokesperson, Jacob Long, emphasized the tent encampments were a health risk to the residents and the community at large.
“It was an unsafe, unsanitary and a public health nuisance with feces, with rat holes, food everywhere, syringes, drugs, that formed in the middle of a global pandemic,” Long said. Police calls for service to the hotel shelters, he added, were “a minor determination over the larger public health risks that those encampments posed.”
St. Louis is not alone in its efforts to disband encampments during the pandemic, with cities nationwide continuing the practice and moving people to hotels.
According to news reports, Red Roof Inns in at least seven other cities, including Miami and Houston, have begun leasing rooms as temporary shelter spaces for homeless people.
While housing people in hotels isn’t new, more states and local governments have turned to the idea over the past year as a way to provide much-needed shelter space. California, for instance, has funneled $600 million toward a statewide effort to move thousands of people into hotel rooms, known as Project Homekey.
In an immediate sense, the goal is to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission among people who are often in worse health compared to the general population and may not have health insurance, making them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Early research suggests moving to individual rooms can help limit the spread of the coronavirus and foster a sense of stability among residents, compared to more traditional congregate shelters.
Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with some who work closely with people experiencing homelessness, have warned that clearing encampments can have far-reaching consequences. Last March, the CDC issued new guidelines, advising cities “to allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are" unless they had enough private rooms.
Clearing encampments, the guidance states, could “cause people to disperse throughout the community” and possibly increase the spread of infectious diseases. St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden had cited this guidance in a March 25 internal memo, ordering city officers to “refrain from clearing encampments.”
An encampment can also serve as a centralized location where mental health professionals and other service providers can connect with residents, advocates say. The CDC has warned that people evicted from tent camps can lose connection with these providers.
That concern was borne out last year in St. Louis when city officials disbanded the downtown camps, said Shanna Nieweg, executive director of Horizon Housing Development Company.
“We're still looking for some individuals that left the behavioral health providers,” said Nieweg, chair of the St. Louis Continuum of Care, a group that advises the city on issues related to housing and homelessness. “We can't find them today, because they've scattered all over.”
The day before the scheduled eviction, Nieweg, along with more than a dozen other board members from the group, wrote to the mayor that they were “gravely concerned” the action would fuel new public health risks and traumatize at-risk encampment residents. Even with the addition of the city-leased hotel rooms, they wrote, there were not enough shelter beds for the homeless population in St. Louis.
“The mayor contacted us 24 hours before they were going to disperse the encampment and asked us to get behind it,” Nieweg said. “That’s just not something we could get behind, because it wasn’t right.”
From a health perspective, encampments can function as a support network for residents, said Dr. Nathan Nolan, an infectious disease specialist at Washington University who has provided care to patients at encampments in St. Louis.
“Often we find out about someone being sick not from the individual, but because someone else within the encampment said, ‘You know, James doesn't really look right today’ or ‘That wound on Tina’s leg looks a lot worse than it did last week,’” Nolan said. “If you take that support system away and now someone may be staying on their own, there's the potential for them to get very ill.”
Though staying in individual rooms is preferable during a pandemic, residents have sometimes struggled with feelings of isolation, said Michael Robinson, CEO and co-founder of City Hope. The nonprofit has provided care and case management for people living at three of the temporary shelters, including the Red Roof Inn and Mark Twain Hotel.
At the Red Roof Inn in particular, Robinson said, it was “not a good mix” to have a for-profit business catering to hotel customers in a building that also served as a homeless shelter — in part because residents were not able to maintain a sense of community.
“They wanted to gather, they wanted to be in each other's rooms, which was not acceptable because of the disruption for the other guests in the hotel,” Robinson said. “They were already a part of community, and then we brought them from that community into another space that they weren't allowed to be community in.”
For some, the loss of these communities over the past year has been particularly difficult.
Last year, Marcus Hunt was selected by the residents of one of the Market Street encampments to serve as their mayor. The group was more than just a random collection of tents, he said — it functioned as a neighborhood, with a budget, a policing structure and a treasurer.
After officials cleared the camp last May, Hunt moved to a city-leased room at the Red Roof Inn. Sometimes, he said, he feels depressed, thinking about the community that no longer exists.
“This is not something that just popped up out of thin air,” said Hunt, who has lived on the streets off and on for the past decade. “This is something that was organized. This is something that we help people create and propagate, something that we support in any way that we can.”
In addition to concerns about crime and safety, our investigation found tight restrictions placed on the hotel residents may have also undermined the city’s efforts to keep the homeless population isolated during the pandemic, by forcing some back onto the streets.
Residents had to follow specific rules to stay at the hotels, some imposed by the building owners and others by the organizations running the shelters — and if they violated the rules, they were asked to leave.
The rules ranged from a strict no alcohol policy and room searches at the Red Roof Inn to a 6 p.m. curfew at the Western Inn. At the Mark Twain Hotel, shelter residents were required to dress “appropriately” in common areas, according to lease documents.
Attorney John Bonacorsi, formerly of the legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders, called the rules “extremely restrictive” and said the vast majority of the clients he represented who lived at one of the hotel shelters were evicted in a matter of days.
“This includes some of my clients who lost their homes during the pandemic,” said Bonacorsi, now a tenants’ rights attorney at the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom in Kansas City, Missouri. “Being unhoused was a new experience for them, and even they were not able to make this temporary shelter situation work.”
Some shelter residents found the rules intrusive and difficult to follow, said outreach worker Sharon Morrow. “They just didn't want to be treated like children,” she said. “They wanted to be treated with honor and dignity as the adults that they were, not criminals.”
While boundaries are important for ensuring safety, Morrow said, “a lot of times when you clamp down on folks, it doesn’t do anything but push them the other way.” Some residents, she added, left the shelters voluntarily because it was “too much for them to deal with.”
Toni Wade, who coordinates care and case management at the Western Inn, said when the hotel first opened as a shelter last year, they had to kick out a number of residents for rule violations.
“Sometimes it's very traumatic for people,” said Wade, CEO of the HomeQuest Group. “You've got these high barriers, instead of a low-barrier environment, where we'll just take you and have you as you are. I think that's why we had so many issues up front.”
Attea Burrow was among those kicked out of the hotel shelter for violating the rules.
Burrow moved to St. Louis from Minneapolis last March and spent several months living in a car. City workers initially offered her a bed at a group shelter for men, but as a transgender woman, Burrow said she was too afraid to stay there.
After a few months, outreach volunteers found her a room at the Western Inn. When she arrived, Burrow said it felt like a “blessing” to have her own space. The first night, she was so exhausted she fell asleep in the bathtub. “That was the first time I went to sleep in days,” Burrow remembered.
But she soon began finding it difficult to make the 6 p.m. curfew at the hotel and was eventually kicked out.
The longer she stayed, Burrow said, the more it felt like “a jail cell without cuffs.”
After she was evicted from the Western Inn, Burrow found an apartment through a local nonprofit that provides permanent supportive housing without mandates for tenants to meet specific requirements, such as sobriety or income. She now works as an outreach volunteer with Tent Mission STL, delivering food and supplies to people experiencing homelessness across the city.
“I was going straight down, I mean, destruction,” Burrow said, who previously supported herself through sex work. “But God has put me in a position where I don’t have to do that. I can’t wait until tomorrow, lately. I got peace and a freezer full of food.”
Ultimately, St. Louis officials say the hotel shelter program is part of a long-term push to move people from the streets into permanent housing — a strategy that Mayor Lyda Krewson called “a much more economical way to provide housing for people,” during a press conference last May.
Some shelter residents have successfully moved into stable housing over the past year, including about two dozen people from the Western Inn in north St. Louis.
Toni Wade remembers one woman who moved into the Western Inn last spring with her 4-year-old granddaughter, after losing her job during the pandemic. After a few months, Wade said, she was able to find housing and a job in home health care.
“I don’t want to make it sound like everything has been roses; it has been very hard,” Wade said, explaining that they’ve had to deal with mice, bedbugs and cockroaches, among other challenges. “But when you hear those success stories — and all you need is one — it can replace tens of incidents that were bad. Those are the ones I fight for.”
About half of the 36 residents at the Western Inn are ready to move into permanent housing, Wade said, but there’s a “bottleneck” due to a lack of affordable options.
Despite the efforts of service providers and volunteers, some shelter residents ended up back on the street after the Red Roof Inn ended its lease with the city.
Shortly before the hotel shelter shut down in June, Megan Place and her husband were offered a space at the Mark Twain Hotel, she said, but staff told them they would have to stay in separate rooms due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’ve been together for 11 years, and there’s not one night that I’ve slept without him,” Place said. “I’d rather stay outside in my tent than go to a hotel where I have to stay in a different room from my husband.”
The couple caught a break when their unemployment checks arrived in the mail, just a few days before they were supposed to leave the Red Roof Inn. They were able to scrape together enough money to buy a used car and move to a motel in St. Francois County.
Last December, Place and Thomas moved into a one-bedroom house in Ironton, Missouri, about 80 miles south of St. Louis — and were able to reunite with their three children, who spent the majority of last year living with a relative.
Still, the experience has left Place feeling jaded about the city’s approach to homelessness.
At the downtown encampment, “we were an eyesore to them,” she said, referring to city officials. “They didn’t want us there and they didn’t want to look bad for kicking us out, so they gave us a place to stay. But then they kicked us all out. I don’t think they were actually there to help us.”
For Marcus Hunt, who was deeply involved in helping fellow encampment residents, it’s been a struggle to find stability in the months since the camps were cleared.
Less than a month after he moved from the encampment to the Red Roof Inn, he was arrested on charges that were later dropped. He lived in an apartment for a few months, but he recently lost that housing.
In mid-January, he visited a camp huddled next to a vacant warehouse downtown, shortly before the property owner evicted the people living there and fenced off the area. Hunt stood watching, hands in his pockets, as people shoved clothing and food into trash bags.
“It's almost like watching your house burn down over and over again,” he said. “We've given them this community to belong to, we've given them this semblance of safety, just to take it from them.”
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan
Additional reporting by Tom Scheck of APM Reports, the investigative unit of American Public Media. This story was produced as part of APM Reports’ Public Media Accountability Initiative, which supports investigative reporting at local media outlets around the country. Support also came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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