Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Downtown's Homeless Residents

Having both lived in and visited San Francisco over many years, I've witnessed firsthand what a major homeless problem is. There are literally thousands of people camped out on the streets of San Francisco.

Office workers chatting on cel phones, stepping over sleeping (or dead?) homeless people laying on the sidewalk, lean-tos holding all the worldly possesions of a homeless person are seen set up along the side walls of fancy restaurants; hundreds and sometimes thousands of people sleep outdoors in the city's parks. At one time, the park in front of San Francisco's glorious City Hall looked like a tent city.

Never in St. Louis would you see this sort of situation. There has been some documentation recently about Lucas Park being a homeless encampment. And there's a controversy surrounding the possibility of developing a dog park at the same location, dislocating the homeless. However, yesterday and today, I had my first San Francisco homeless deja vue experience right here in downtown St. Louis.

For the past couple of days, I've had to be at work downtown about an hour earlier than usual, and then leave the office for meetings that were starting around 7:30 am. Each day, I travelled Pine out of downtown, past the Soldier's Memorial.

Across from the Soldier's Memorial is a small park. It sits between Pine, Olive, 13th and 14th. The park has turned into a homeless encampment. As I drove by I could see fifteen to twenty groups of people, some sleeping, some just waking up, in the park. Some had blankets spread out on the ground, others were sleeping on benches. Maybe there's a sense of security for homeless people to gather together overnight.

Just a few years ago, there were very few visible signs of homeless people on the streets of downtown. There were stories about some longtime downtown homeless that slept in the bushes next to the stairs of the Civil Courts building. But they weren't taking over city parks.

I'm curious to hear what others' think we as a community should be doing for the homeless people living in St. Louis.


Michael Allen said...

From a design standpoint, we can eliminate empty spaces from dense areas of the city. Parks like those in Memorial Plaza and on the Gateway Mall are isolated from businesses and frequent activity, and thus really serve no useful purpose. The only people eager to use them are homeless people looking for a place to live where few people will bother them.

I would propose that the city consider developing some of these blocks for new buildings in the future, with inclusion of smaller pocket parks that are surrounded by active spaces. These smaller parks would be easier to manage.

I also stringly think that the Old Post Office plaza thingy should be dropped. Creating another huge dead space in downtown St. Louis would be a disaster, visually and socially. As planned, it almost seems like that its designers want to build it only for the homeless population's use. This site should be built upon. Ya want a plaza by the OPO? Walk a block east and you have Mercantile Bank's "park". If you ask me, that space itself should be built upon -- the Ambassador Building should never have come down -- but in the meantime it could be put to good use as a *public* park.

The only way to discourage homeless encampment is to renovate vacant buildings and redensify the city. Police measures are doomed to fail and violate civil liberties. As long as there are big open spaces removed from vital street life, the homeless will seek them out rather than living scattered among different sites, a way of life that is less intimidating to pedestrians in the city even if it is not conducive to community-building among the homeless.

Chickadee said...

I have a similiar experience. I just moved to SeaTac where there's many more homeless people compared to Minneapolis. At first, I had trouble getting used to be asked for spare change on almost every block. It eventually prompted me to read about homelessness. I learned how most people become homeless. Many are mentally ill, or abused womenm, or abused kids. I started to recognize homeless faces, and I learned about their individual personalities. Recently I started volunteering as an outreach counselor, as a way to do my part, since my city has limited shelter and services. I mainly pass out food, but we are there to help them find the narrow door from homelessness to shelter of their own. I am learning how difficult this stuggle can be for them. I think that everyone should try to contribute to eliminating homelessness in some way. Give to an organization, or just say hello to a homeless person because they really need positive human contact.