Homeless opt to stay outside despite bitter cold

St. Louis Post-Dispatch | January 16, 2009 | A1

The drafty cracks beneath the doors of downtown buildings would be little more than a heating inefficiency if it weren’t for the bitter, bitter cold that descended this week.

With the temperature approaching zero last night and the night before, the air escaping from buildings turns entryways into premium real estate for those who know of and need it. Those vents just inside the vestibules mean the difference between a night wrapped in multiple blankets, albeit uncomfortably, and frostbite, hypothermia or even death.

Darryl and Lisa Spinks have a favorite door on the east side of the public library. Wednesday night, they took refuge there from a windchill in negative double digits, putting down cardboard and building a makeshift igloo of blankets to capture the warm air.

“This is what we do to survive,” Darryl Spinks said.

Even on dangerously cold nights like the last two, some percentage of the homeless either refuse a night indoors or just don’t know where to turn. Instead, they scavenge for warmth, getting by on some combination of scrappiness, blankets, body fat and luck.

Social service advocates fear for those people. What scares them more these days is tough economic times that almost certainly have left more people outside, some without the street smarts or faculties to know when the cold is too much.

This week, as the forecast became clear, the city shelters scrambled to add beds – or even mats on the floor – to compensate for the expected demand. Some, such as the Rev. Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center, put more volunteers on the streets ahead of the cold to distribute provisions ranging from firewood to bottled water.

Wednesday night, as the cold set in, volunteers from church and social service groups went out in small convoys, loosely coordinated, if at all. Most offered food, drinks, blankets and clothes; more important, they urged the homeless to not chance it on the street, to instead head for a warm shelter bed.

Thursday night promised even colder temperatures and volunteers planned a similar routine.

“The main mission is to just make sure people don’t freeze to death,” said Natalie Ray, a social worker at the Horizon Club, a daytime-only downtown shelter and service center.

Ray spent Wednesday night dropping in on homeless hangouts: a tent of scraps in a thicket along Interstate 44, the narrow St. Charles Street downtown, loading docks that serve as lean-tos, overpasses of Highway 40, window wells of buildings and even a bridge over a railroad in south St. Louis.

In most cases, she found the signs of the homeless residences – empty tents and shacks, mattresses with heaps of blankets, bags of clothes, scattered and random possessions, decorations and stuffed animals – but no people.

“When you see these, you’re reminded that these are still people’s homes,” Ray said. “Even in their poverty, they sometimes have touches of home.”

NO PERMANENT WORK

Ray met the Spinks couple as they prepared to bed down. The two turned down an offer of a blanket – they had three giant garbage bags full of them – but accepted sandwiches.

Darryl Spinks spent roughly 10 years in state prison for a robbery charge. He said he has done odd jobs since, but found no permanent work. They spend Lisa Spinks’ $630 of monthly Social Security income – she has a mental illness – on food and the occasional cheap motel room. For extra money, they beg for change outside hockey games.

But they avoid the shelter system because they don’t want to separate due to Lisa Spinks’ condition; and they said long-term programs to get them off the streets permanently have failed because they don’t like the rules and or can’t meet requirements.

Homeless advocates say that’s the mold of many of the chronically homeless; they haven’t had the motivation or ability to stick with a rehab program and often become permanent characters of the street.

But they aren’t necessarily in the majority demographic of the homeless. Most who reached out to the city’s homeless hot line in 2008 were either single females or families (and most of the families are single women with children).

With a general housing crisis and unemployment on the rise, advocates say there’s simply a growing number of people who wouldn’t otherwise be homeless but can’t find or pay for a place to live.

“We see more and more of these people who have slipped through the cracks, but they’re not really the people who seem to want to be homeless,” said Kevin Mennel, who along with a couple of dozen volunteers from area churches handed out warm meals of macaroni and chicken casserole in a downtown parking lot Wednesday night.

‘GETTING WORSE’

Even as Darryl Spinks shivered in the dropping temperature Wednesday night, he said he notices more people without shelter. And more of them are younger or come with kids.

“With the economy coming down, it’s getting worse,” Spinks said. “There’s a whole new class of homeless out here.”

Across the street from the Spinks, Ray greeted Chris Jackson, another huddled mass in a bus stop. He spent six years in state prison for dealing cocaine in Sikeston, Mo., and has been on parole about a year. Jackson said he has held down a job at a meat processor in south St. Louis for a few months, but he hasn’t found a permanent place to live. The felony conviction, he said, remains a barrier even to an apartment, given that the housing crisis has increased competition in the rental market.

Jackson was hardly a grizzled veteran and he admitted to not really having a plan to survive the cold. Ray gave him a lift to the St. Peter and Paul Shelter in Soulard.

“It’s bad when you’ve got to be out here and you’ve got a job,” Jackson said.

Elsewhere in the city, other teams were roaming about. A van from Covenant House, a youth shelter, drove back alleys behind warehouses near Highway 40 and the rail lines, before heading north.

They made their way to an elaborate homeless camp in north St. Louis where dozens of homeless men and women live inside a long, abandoned, multi-story warehouse funded by the donations of churches and other groups. A young, homeless man – drunk and wearing far too few layers for the cold – took a blanket before winding back to a campfire. Another man, bundled in multiple coats, delivered hot cocoa mix, spoons and canned fruit to the group, most of which had bedded down.

Among them was David Clements, 45, an out-of-work concrete finisher who keeps a mattress, tent, propane heater and stockpiles of canned food. He said the stereotype of drug-addicted homeless people doesn’t apply, least of all in this economy.

“Nobody in our group is shooting up,” he said Tuesday night as he was visited by volunteers from New Life Evangelistic Center. “Most of us are just trying to survive until there’s work.

“But we don’t know when that will be.”

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