Attack on St. Louis Homeless Foreshadows Things to Come
by Don Fitz
The sub-freezing temperature was dropping. As the snow began to fall, many felt their hands were too cold to hold signs during the December 17 action. Two dozen had answered the Green Party call to picket the mayor of St. Louis for his efforts to close down New Life Evangelistic Center, the city's homeless “shelter-of-last-resort.” They knew things would be much worse for those forced to sleep in the cold if the shelter were shut down. The action was one in a series of efforts to draw attention to the city government's ruthless attack on those with no place to go.
The roots of homelessness are much deeper than cold blooded insensitivity of Republicans. It reflects a bi-partisan attack on the poorest of the poor. Efforts to shut down New Life are spearheaded by Francis Slay, the Democratic Party mayor who has championed charter schools over public ones, stymied efforts to create a meaningful Civilian Oversight Board for police violence, and always finds millions upon millions of dollars for sports stadiums while funding for homeless shelters are never adequate.
Over 40 years ago Rev. Larry Rice began New Life in a part of downtown St. Louis where real estate was cheap. He expanded the number of homeless he could house to over 200 per night and became somewhat of a folk legend. But in recent years, buildings near New Life gentrified. In flocked yuppies and others who sneered at homeless people as beneath them. Even though the shelter was there first and newcomers were quite aware of who their neighbors would be, many of them acted as if the loft owners had assured them that they could get rid of the unwanted.
Mayor Slay became their knight in shining armor as he initiated efforts to drive the homeless from the streets of downtown. Driving people away from where they live due to the increased value of land is a recurring theme in the history of this hemisphere. For centuries, indigenous peoples have suffered the “extraction curse” when their home are discovered to be located atop gold, silver, tin, lead or adjacent to a potential hydroelectric dam.
This was not lost on several St. Louisans who recently returned from opposing the Dakota Access Pipleline (DAPL). Corporate executives are eager to sacrifice sacred lands and clean water so they can transport fossil fuel across the US for sale to distant countries. The Mississippi Standing Action Group joined the Green Party picket because of the painful similarity between dehumanizing native peoples and demonizing the homeless.
As temperatures plummeted, the mayor's campaign of harassment against New Life swung into full gear. “It's obscene for Francis Slay to interfere with people trying to bring donations in the cold of winter,” observes Green Party spokeswoman Barbara Chicherio. “Slay has ordered parking meters to be removed from the entire block in front of New Life. I have witnessed police telling people that they can no longer stop their cars to bring food and blankets inside. They have even used taxpayer money to put up signs in front of New Life telling people to take their donations somewhere else.”
For months, Slay has been working to pull corporate media under his umbrella. Stories of good work done by New Life have almost disappeared from TV and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as they are replaced by reports confirming what the Democratic Party Mayor wants the public to believe. The newspeak includes charges that New Life …
1. has to be shut down because it does not comply with codes for building permits;
2. is responsible for a wave of overdoses by those smoking K-2 (synthetic marijuana) in front of it; and,
3. can easily be eliminated because other area shelters can handle those who come there.
There are a few wee problems with each of these allegations. As the New Life attorney notes, building codes and ordinances “are so vague and ambiguous that it is impossible to comply.” The Board of Public Services, which revoked New Life's occupancy permit had no jurisdiction because New Life is not a hotel as it claimed. Additionally, requiring New Life to obtain signatures of approval by those living nearby is discriminatory in the extreme, since shelters favored by the city are not required to do so.
The charge that New Life is somehow responsible for K-2 overdoses is absurd. City police refused to respond to 911 calls made by New Life that dealers and thugs were distributing K-2 near the shelter, raising the question of whether city government itself was behind the overdoses. Checking the public record of 911 calls to respond to K-2 overdoses reveals that they were made all over the downtown area and were definitely not limited to New Life.
Many homeless shelters in St. Louis are doing great work. City Hall may claim that other shelters can absorb people going to New Life; but the reality for those who suddenly find themselves without a home on a frigid night is quite different. When people call another shelter, they are likely to find …
- that shelter has restrictions which exclude them; or
- that shelter has a waiting period before they can get a bed; or
- they need a diagnosis before coming in; or
- they can only leave a phone number for an agency which never calls them back;
- the shelter decided that the cold is not “excessive” because it is not 15 degrees or lower; or
- they are told that the only shelter which can meet their emergency needs is New Life.
Green Party mayoral hopeful Johnathan McFarland believes that “New Life must be kept open because it is the only shelter in St. Louis which takes in homeless people in truly desperate situations. It is obviously needed because so many people come there.”
While Trump and the Republicans are more blatant in their rhetoric, the slick wordsmithing of Democratic Party politicians like Francis Slay has equally brutal effects. As capitalism sinks into a feeding frenzy to extract profits from every acre of native land and urban real estate, it uses whatever technique it finds most useful. In St. Louis and Standing Rock, its focus is on those who have the least power to resist. It is clearly the time for the left to unite in their defense. If we do not, the 1% will intensify their efforts to throw environmentalists, trade unionists and social justice activists under the rug.
Don Fitz is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of The Greens/Green Party USA. He produces the show Green Time in conjunction with KNLC-TV in the City of St. Louis and is editor of the Compost-Dispatch newsletter, published for the Green Party of St. Louis.