St. Louis, suburbs clash over growing homelessness

The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — Sometimes the men emerge from out-of-town police cruisers that stop at homeless shelters and then quickly drive off. Others turn up still wearing gowns from suburban hospitals.

Surrounding communities have long been accused of using downtown St. Louis as a dumping ground to dispose of homeless men with nowhere else to go. But as the weak economy and foreclosures push more people onto the streets, overwhelmed city officials say enough is enough.

“It’s a big problem,” said the city’s human services director, Bill Siedhoff. “It’s one we’ve talked about for a long time. There’s just been no response from these surrounding areas. ”

Experts say the suburban homeless population is rising. Shelters in St. Louis are virtually full all the time.

Homeless advocate Larry Rice, a pastor who operates a shelter at his downtown New Life Evangelistic Center, said he typically housed 200 to 225 homeless last year.

“Now, it’s not unusual to have 300 to 325, and the difference is people coming from outside of St. Louis,” Rice said.

Last week, Rice went to Belleville, Ill., to call attention to the problem. He picked up Belleville people he said had been dropped off across the Mississippi River in St. Louis and brought them back to Illinois. He called for the community to come up with a better way to address homelessness.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said Rice is simply wrong. He said the struggling economy has led to an increase in homelessness. And while some people from Belleville may go to St. Louis seeking shelter, Eckert said his city neither encourages them to leave nor dumps them downtown.

Many make their way to St. Louis on their own or with the help of friends, the mayor said.

But Rice’s son, Chris, also a pastor at New Life, said he has seen police vans pull up near his center, watched officers remove handcuffs and then leave homeless men in a park across the street.

Larry Rice said suburban hospitals and detox centers have also been known to bring homeless people into the city and leave them near shelters — sometimes still wearing hospital gowns.

Printed on Friday, February 24, 2012 as: St. Louis, suburbs clash over homelessness issue