With tents outside the mayor’s window, St. Louis looks to expand homeless shelters

City officials want to make it easier to open homeless shelters here. So they’re looking to gut neighborhoods’ power to vote them out.

Jordan, who did not want to give his last name, picks up trash around an area he was sitting outside City Hall in St. Louis on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. Homeless people have been camping outside the building recently. Allie Schallert, Post-Dispatch

The planning department, urged on by Aldermanic President Megan Green, is proposing the elimination of a provision in the law that requires shelter providers to gather signatures from a majority of their closest neighbors before they can open. Plans for new shelters would be considered by a board of top city officials instead. And in many areas, a provider housing eight or fewer people at a time could skip the board, too.

It’s all an attempt to do something about a longstanding problem: The city doesn’t have enough beds for all of its homeless. Yet shelters can’t persuade residents to let a new site open up in their neighborhood. That leaves many people without the help they need, and the city contending with camping on the riverfront, outside downtown businesses, and, in recent weeks, under Mayor Tishaura O. Jones’ window at City Hall.

“If we continue at a place where every neighborhood says ‘not in my backyard,’ we end up at a place where we don’t have the shelter capacity that we need,” said Green.

Supporters are hoping the change will encourage the development of smaller shelters that blend into neighborhoods and broaden access to services across the city. That could ease the burden on downtown and the near north side, where, much to the chagrin of residents and business owners there, most of the existing resources are concentrated.

“It shouldn’t just be saturated in one area,” said Alderman Rasheen Aldridge, who represents part of downtown and the near north side.

But leaders elsewhere are wary. The current process requires an operator to get signatures from a majority of the property owners or registered voters within 500 feet of the site. And they say that process forces operators to engage with the surrounding community, explain their plans, listen to concerns and make adjustments.

“Why,” said Jim Dwyer, a longtime resident and businessman in the Central West End, “would you disenfranchise those who would be most immediately impacted?”

Alderman Tom Oldenburg, of St. Louis Hills, said the end result would be lower quality of life around the city.

“You can’t just turn the whole system upside down,’ he said.

The petition process is a time-honored tradition in the city, used for decades to ensure neighborhood approval of new arrivals. But the concept has been falling out of favor in recent years: City planners describe it as outdated and onerous, and recommend replacing it with administrative hearings before the Board of Public Service, a body composed of seven department directors appointed by the mayor.

Residents can still show up to the hearings and make their voices heard. And the board can impose conditions on a proposed development, such as limitations on hours of operation or the number of people served. But no one has to walk around and ask for signatures on a petition like they’re running for office.

In recent years, aldermen have applied that logic to hotels, arcades, day cares and rehab facilities, among other things. This past spring, Alderman Bret Narayan, of Dogtown, introduced a plan to let some restaurants get liquor licenses without petitions.

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