A homeless camp located under the Chestnut bridge near Ozarks Technical Community College was cleared by police and MoDOT Thursday morning. The property is owned by MoDOT.
Advocates with the Connecting Grounds, a church that helps the unsheltered homeless community, say it was about the third camp cleared in recent weeks.
Katrin Scott, a longtime homeless advocate, said about 12 people were staying under the bridge and a total of about 50 homeless people have been displaced in these past few weeks.
“There’s just nowhere to go,” Scott said. “There are not options, and we are not getting options from the people making these decisions.”
Scott and other volunteers with the Connecting Grounds spent Thursday collecting “survival packages” with blankets, clothes and camping gear to give those who lost their belongings when the property was cleared.
Prior to the clearing Thursday morning, the city’s protocol for addressing homeless camps had been initiated.
The protocol, which was established in 2014, requires police officers to give campers a minimum of 24 hours’ notice to collect their belongings and vacate. Police also notify Community Partnership of the Ozarks’ One Door staff, which will then notify other homeless advocate agencies so they can provide assistance to the campers.
One Door serves as the central point of entry for housing services, emergency shelters and other services for homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless.
Adam Bodendieck, CPO’s Director of Homeless Services, said One Door staff and members of Burrell Behavioral Health’s PATH team have been to the site under the Chestnut bridge at least four times since they were notified last week that protocol was likely to be initiated “due to safety concerns.”
Cora Scott, spokesperson for the City of Springfield, said contact was first made with the campers on March 26, not long after MoDOT received letters of concern about the encampment. MoDOT was interested in the city’s homeless camp protocol being enacted due to “safety concerns because of campfires being reported.”
“All of the agencies responding to this situation worked together to create the most humane process possible,” Scott wrote in an email. “The City, as well as all of the agencies involved in responding to this crisis, are committed to connecting those in need with shelter and other resources available.
“This is a crisis. We have people trying to live in the most deplorable of situations,” she continued. “They are not safe. It is our hope that they are connecting with the resources they need for solid shelter and a pathway to a stable home.”
‘We are humans, too’
A few hours after the property was cleared, a woman named Delana Ellison sat at a picnic table outside of the Veterans Coming Home Center, the daytime drop in center for homeless people.
Ellison and her fiancé were among those who’d been moved off the property Thursday morning. They’d been camping there for about three weeks. They lost their tent, bedding and much of their clothing.
Ellison said the campers expected officials to show up around 9 a.m. Instead, MoDOT trucks and a Bobcat arrived at 7 a.m. and began clearing. Ellison said she and the others had to scramble.
“We have nowhere to go,” she said. “They keep tearing down all the wooded areas if they find out people are there.”
Ellison said an 18-year-old had been camping with them. That young man has been homeless since he was 16 and they’d been watching out for him.
“It’s got to be hard for him,” she said. “It’s hard enough at 45.”
“It’s not easy to get a job. It’s not easy to keep a job. You don’t know if your stuff will be there when you get back,” she said. “Once you hit rock bottom, climbing back up is impossible.”
Her fiancé nodded and looked at the pavement.
“There’s plenty of empty lots. There’s plenty of empty buildings,” he said. “We are not asking to be put in no five-star motels.”
“Let us have a safe place we can go,” Ellison said. “We are humans, too.”
Ellison said she’s been attempting to get into permanent housing through One Door for four years with no luck.
- If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.
- Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.
- Encourage those staying in encampments to set up their tents/sleeping quarters with at least 12 feet x 12 feet of space per individual.
- If an encampment is not able to provide sufficient space for each person, allow people to remain where they are but help decompress the encampment by linking those at increased risk for severe illness to individual rooms or safe shelter.
- Work together with community coalition members to improve sanitation in encampments.
- Ensure nearby restroom facilities have functional water taps, are stocked with hand hygiene materials (soap, drying materials) and bath tissue, and remain open to people experiencing homelessness 24 hours per day.
- If toilets or handwashing facilities are not available nearby, assist with providing access to portable latrines with handwashing facilities for encampments of more than 10 people. These facilities should be equipped with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
In December of last year, a task force with the Springfield chapter of the NAACP asked city officials to temporarily ease anti-camping ordinances that prevent homeless people from pitching tents on public and private property. The task force wants the city to follow the CDC recommendations.
The task force suggested there be designated areas, such as church parking lots, where people could set up their tents or park their vehicles through the end of the frost season or the end of the pandemic — whichever comes first. The group has suggested that various rules be instituted and that security patrols, trash service and Porta-Potties could be provided, with at least one local church offering funding.
The city declined to lift the ban. In a letter to the NAACP task force, City Manager Jason Gage wrote in part that city-owned property “is intended to be used only for specific municipal purposes, which is very typical for most cities.
“As a result, we do not allow residential living in tents and under tarps on any private or municipal property throughout the community in an unregulated fashion,” Gage wrote.
Scott, with the Connecting Grounds, estimated about 10 homeless camps were cleared this past winter.
Pastor calls for change, compassion
Connecting Grounds Pastor Christie Love is co-chair of that NAACP task force and a vocal advocate for the unsheltered homeless community in and around Springfield.
Love called Thursday morning’s camp clearing a “massive breakdown in communication.”
Yes, appropriate notice was given to the campers, Love said. (There have been occasions over the past winter when notice was not given.)
“The problem was nobody notified anybody to actually help them,” Love said. “We were never notified that it was happening, and therefore no volunteers were there to help people move.
“The bigger problem is there’s just nowhere for them to go,” Love added. “A lot of these individuals were people who had already been displaced once this winter when a previous campsite had been closed down. Almost every single campsite that we serviced through outreach this winter has now been forced to move, to close. It just feels very targeted and really aggressive right now.”
Among those who had been camping under the bridge was a man who’d had a stroke just a few days prior, Love said.
“Our medical care team reached out with him. He is currently admitted to the hospital,” she said. “So he just lost everything he has: all his medicines were in there. And he’s in critical care in the hospital right now.”
A woman fleeing domestic violence was also staying under the bridge. Love said they’d tried to get her into a domestic violence shelter earlier in the week, but there were no beds.
“So she stayed with a friend in a tent down there to be kept safe,” Love said. “It’s a lot of really sad situations that were down there.”
Love expressed frustration that the CDC’s guidelines are “still valid” and “still not being followed in Springfield.”
“I still contend that there needs to be a place where the City can provide tents,” she said, “and trash service can be provided, security can be provided, where no drugs are allowed, where violence is not allowed, and individuals have a safe place to exist.”
“There’s a lot of cities that have created that because of the huge number, the surge of unsheltered individuals that we are seeing across the country,” Love said. “There are so many cities that have used COVID relief funds to carve out camping spaces for people in their communities.”
For example, the Sacramento Bee recently published an article about the city council there voting to set up a series of indoor or outdoor triage centers citywide where the unsheltered can come for services and set up residence.
“We know that Greene County’s got a lot of money coming in,” Love said. “I would love to see us be able to work together and find a place where people can just be safe and have a place to exist.”