My mail folder regularly contains correspondence on the subject of homeless people in Downtown’s parks, though the tone and suggestions vary wildly. For example, some people write to say that the City is not doing enough to remove homeless people from Downtown’s several parks. Other people complain that the City’ s policies regarding its parks and some of their users are too harsh. Most of the mail is thoughtful; some of it, though, is not.
I do not think that the most pressing problem presented by homeless people is that they can be seen from the windows of expensive condos. However, I also do not believe that the range of activities permitted in public spaces, like parks, should include erecting shelters, buying or selling drugs, drinking alcohol, breaking things, littering, fighting, terrorizing passersby and each other, or bathing.
Obviously (at least to me), the most pressing problem presented by chronically homeless people is the need to identify their problems and address them. That means matching people to available services, a process that usually takes some time and always takes coordination. The City has a plan in place to do just that and we have made substantial progress in our goal of connecting every homeless person to housing and other services. In the interim, we have created more services so homeless people can get a meal (not in a park), take a shower (not in a park), use the bathroom (not in a park), and store their belongings (not in a park).
One of the battlegrounds for homeless people, their advocates, and the people who complain about them has been Lucas Park, a small green space behind Washington Avenue across from the St. Louis Public Library and adjacent to several faith-based homeless centers. Lucas Park has been a popular (and loud) gathering spot for homeless people for decades, resisting almost every public and private effort to make it cleaner, safer, and quieter. It has my attention.
We have asked the suburban churches who feed the homeless in Lucas Park to do so in a more sanitary place, like one of the drop-in centers we helped create. We have told them that we will, albeit reluctantly, enforce our health code and ordinances against them, if they do not stop the practice. We have begun closing Lucas Park for an hour every day to clean it. And we have begun strictly enforcing all park regulations, City ordinances, and state laws whether the perpetrators are homeless or not, especially against repeat offenders. As a result of this effort, Lucas Park is looking better though, some of its usual inhabitants have simply moved up or down the block to new spaces and new inhabitants have arrived from other parts of the region to take their places. Our efforts will follow them.
There is one last point to make, one that you have heard me make before: homelessness is a regional problem that other communities in the region largely address by doing nothing. Until the suburbs create their own programs and coordinate their own efforts with ours, the City and its residents will continue to bear disproportionate share of the costs and burdens. That’s wrong for a lot of reasons. (Editors and reporters take note.)