Protesters in front of the host hotel for the Democratic National Convention fall meeting calling attention to the treatment of the unhoused in St. Louis. Photos: J.A. Salaam

ST. LOUIS—St. Louis’ first Black woman mayor, Tishaura Jones, is facing some public scrutiny over recent deaths in the city jail and the dilemma and challenges regarding the unhoused population. Many have expressed dissatisfaction with how the mayor is handling issues concerning those less fortunate. 

During the recent Democratic National Convention (DNC) fall meeting that was held in St. Louis, October 5-7, Vice President Kamala Harris was the keynote speaker. Mayor Jones came under fire when approximately 50 homeless people camping on the lawn of city hall were forced to vacate the grounds a couple of days before convention participants arrived. The sweep happened without enough time to find shelters for them, argued longtime activist Anthony Shahid.

St. Louis resident Dedra Moore is concerned that the unhoused are not being treated with dignity. “They are human but treated worse than dogs. No one wants to deal with those who are down on their luck. We all are just two paychecks away from being in their place,” she said.  

Activist Drew Falvey is co-founder of Lifeline Aid Group, an organization that helps the unhoused community in St. Louis and the surrounding area. “She’s a disappointment to me. I thought she was going to help St. Louis because she’s Black. … But she’s not doing that. Instead, she’s putting money into other things that don’t need the funding, like the Rams’ settlement here.”

Mayor Tishaura Jones Photo:

The city was awarded $280 million plus accruing interest in a settlement with the Los Angeles Rams after the team relocated from St. Louis. According to media reports, in January, the settlement funds were invested in a secure account with the Missouri Securities Investment Program.

“That needs to be toward the homeless. We have enough stuff in the city as it is, but the homeless community has nothing. With all these vacant buildings we can build shelters. There’s plenty for safe spaces. So, if you don’t have the resources to do that then you are really saying you don’t care,” said Mr. Falvey. 

The Final Call spoke with one unhoused resident, Harold W., while he was getting his hair cut on the sidewalk. “We feel like it’s wrong for the city to keep doing the homeless like this. I mean, they leave us out here because they want us to catch cases and get in trouble. I say they really don’t care about us, they just care about themselves,” he said.

Many of the city shelters have been shut down leaving thousands of people living under bridges, vacant buildings, at bus stops or anywhere they can lie down.

On a given night, about 1,250 people are homeless in St. Louis, according to the city’s Continuum of Care, which is comprised of more than 100 people and organizations working to end homelessness.

On the evening of the vice president’s speech at the fall DNC, protesters came to the host hotel to draw attention to what happened before they arrived with the removal of the unhoused encampment at city hall.

T.J. Tutson of Haircuts 4 the Homeless serves the unhoused community every two weeks in St. Louis. Photo: J.A. Salaam

T.J. Tutson is the founder of the nonprofit organization Haircuts for the Homeless STL.

“I started about six years ago to come out and love on the less fortunate community, the displaced community that we have here in Saint Louis. About 3,000 homeless individuals exist in the metro area of East St. Louis and the city of St. Louis,” he said.

His organization includes a community-based barbershop where internship programs and reading programs for the youth in the community are offered.  

Another organization called Lifeline Aid Group is planning a “Fight for the Unhoused Rally” on October 20, in Mayor Jones’s neighborhood.

Activist Amir Brandy of Real StL News said Mayor Jones ran her campaign on the promises of change which included fair treatment of homeless communities. But her performance has caused many of her supporters to lose respect and trust in her, he argued.  “Here we are two administrations later with the same problems, same approaches and no solution,” he said.

“Therefore, I can only conclude that Tishaura Jones is just the face. This administration has lost its way and none of the community leaders that helped get her in office has been pleased with the continued neglect of our Justice Center Prisoners, our homeless community and the citizens in north St. Louis. That’s unacceptable!” 

Mayor Jones, 51, a Democrat, was sworn in as the 47th mayor on April 20, 2021. 

The Final Call contacted Mayor Jones’ office and received an email response from Public Information Officer Nick Dunne. According to Mr. Dunne:

“On Monday, October 2, The City made the decision to decommission the encampment in front of City Hall today at 10:01 p.m. by enforcing the park curfew.” Mr. Dunne added that the decision was not an easy one to make but was made based on serious factors including: 

About50 policecalls for service between 8/14 to 9/28; 

33EMS calls for service: overdoses, seizures, and other medical emergencies;

Fighting amongst the tenants and others who approach the encampment; 

Increasing calls from City employees who report being accosted while at work;

Drug paraphernalia found on-site.

According to Mr. Dunne, the Department of Human Services conducted outreach at the site at least 35 times over the two months prior to connecting individuals with permanent housing, shelter, and supportive services. “More than a dozen accepted the resources offered to them. DHS has also partnered with Behavioral Health Response and Affinia Healthcare to offer resources and services.

All individuals at the encampment have been offered shelter with supportive services on numerous occasions and will be offered shelter again, as we have space available,” the email response stated.

Another concern of St. Louis residents is the condition of local jails and how inmates are being treated.

Jeffrey Carson is the former superintendent of the Medium Security Institution (The Workhouse) and the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis. He has worked in corrections for over 40 years.

Mr. Carson told The Final Call that when he came to the Workhouse jail from Ohio, he implemented the American Jail Association Standards for the facility. According to Mr. Carson, these standards helped stabilize the facility and he introduced activities in the facility that minimized the potential for riots and violence. 

Mayor Jones came under fire when 50 homeless people were forced to evacuate the grounds before vice president Kamala Harris arrived for the DNC fall meeting on Oct. 5-7.

However, Mr. Carson said after Mayor Jones was elected, one of the worst things she could have done was to close the Workhouse. “The Workhouse was the best place for inmates. I was able to get the funding to clean it up, get single showers, doors on the toilets, better sleeping quarters, etc.,” he said.

“We had a barbershop, a state-of-the-art baking equipment that cost half a million dollars. We were teaching life skills and preparing these people to make it on the outside of the prison system,” he added.

According to Mr. Carson, with activist Shahid Muhammad’s influence, they had an entire wing dedicated to the Muslims and it was peaceful and orderly in there.

The workhouse sat on 23 acres of land and when it was closed, the approximately 600 inmates were transferred to other correction facilities including the City Justice Center to help accommodate them. However, the closing of the Workhouse made conditions worse for the inmates and since that time 11 have died since early 2022. According to media reports, the City Justice Center has seen eight deaths since January 2022, as well as disturbing allegations about how detainees are treated. The mayor argued the Workhouse was closed because of inhumane conditions for inmates.

“I never had 10 deaths in a year ever, in all the years I’ve been with the Department of Corrections,” said Mr. Carson “They really messed up when they closed the Workhouse, and it could be used for homeless shelters too. It was fully equipped with what we needed for the people.” 

Mayor Jones released a statement on Oct. 2 stating she was upset to learn about the death of a detainee at the City Justice Center. “I hear your concerns regarding recent medical emergencies at the CJC. Public health and public safety are intrinsically connected, and we must ensure that our services are responsive to the underlying needs of those in the City’s care,” the statement read in part.

“Providing responsive health care at the Justice Center is a top priority. While the City continues the search for a new health care provider for the CJC, I am calling for the creation of new positions in the City of St. Louis Department of Health, including a Chief Medical Officer, specifically to oversee medical operations and services at the jail,” the statement continued.

Activist Anthony Shahid, who now hosts a radio show, has taken to the airways to voice his disappointment with how Mayor Jones is handling these issues. He was angry when she began talking about closing the Workhouse Jail.

“I told her that the St. Louis jails are going to be like Attica if she don’t handle it right,” he said.  “I’ve been going there talking to the inmates for over 35 years and I know what was happening there, but she never asked me anything or got advice from the superintendent Jeff Carson.”