Under a tall railroad bridge in St. Charles County, a couple revealed a small tent stuffed nearly full with blankets. It's been their home for the past five months, but life in a tent has become unbearable in the recent freezing temperatures.
They have enough money for one more night at a hotel, but after that — well, they aren't sure.
"You just have to bundle up," the man said as he looked through a box of snack items in the back of a van operated by Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service's Street Outreach team. The ministry visited the area, helping people find a warm place to stay.
The couple, who declined to give their names citing privacy concerns, have jobs in the food service industry, but it isn't enough to keep them afloat. "All of our money has gone to a room," the man said. "And a hotel room is $70-$80 a night. Over New Year's it was super high."
Another woman, Crystal, sat on a milk crate behind a gas station doing her best to stay warm. Laura Steinhoff, a social service worker from the Care Service, shuffled through items in the back of the van and found her a pair of gloves.
"I can't move my fingers," Crystal told her. "I've been sitting here about 20 minutes." Steinhoff asked her if she had eaten anything and if she had a plan for getting out of the cold that evening.
Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service, which serves St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties, has been patrolling the area and helping people who are homeless find accommodations during the sub-freezing conditions. On a recent afternoon, Steinhoff and Kevin Henderson, a paramedic with SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital, checked on several clients. Steinhoff said they have about a dozen people they check in on each week.
"Our focus for the past two weeks is to find out clients and make sure they have a plan," Steinhoff said. That may include helping them find a place to stay with a family member or friend, a ride to a warming center in the area or linking them to other resources to find a hotel room.
"It's a temporary fix to a long-term problem," Steinhoff noted. Throughout the year, the Street Outreach team helps people meet basic needs, and provides case management, housing options and access to health care.
In St. Louis, Sts. Teresa and Bridget and St. Francis Xavier "College" parishes are among churches serving as overnight shelters as part of the St. Louis Winter Outreach. Two nights a week, when the temperature falls to 20 degrees or below or 25 degrees or below with precipitation, the churches are open to those seeking comfort.
Maureen Nolan of Sts. Teresa and Bridget said the church is equipped to take up to 22 people. Volunteers cook dinner. The meals are covered, but the parish is in need of donations of breakfast food and desserts. The parish also provides bus tickets for people in need of transportation.
"I live Downtown, and I see people on the street," she said. "There's just not enough room in the city shelters."
St. Patrick Center is in "lifesaving mode right now," said Kelly Peach, senior director of communications for the Catholic Charities agency.
The center provides opportunities for self-sufficiency and dignity to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. It has partnerships with the St. Louis police and a mobile outreach team that connects with homeless people and helps them find shelter.
St. Patrick Center and Peter and Paul Community Services partner with the City of St. Louis to operate Biddle Housing Opportunities Center as a daytime service center and overnight emergency shelter as part of a "Housing First" collaboration. The ministries are partnering with other agencies to ensure that individuals and families experiencing homelessness are safe and out of the dangerous elements this winter.
The 94 bunks at Biddle are full and extra cots are set up for additional people. As a point of entry for people referred for shelter, "no one gets turned away," Peach said. "Everyone's working a little bit extra. And we're still trying to get people processed and into housing. That's the real answer."
St. Patrick Center's Shamrock Club assists people stay inside during the day. Anyone wanting to bring supplies for Biddle is directed to the dock at St. Patrick Center.
"We like to think of ourselves as lifesavers all year long, helping people change their lives, improve their lives," Peach said "But we're in a lifesaving mode now because it's so cold."
Irene Agustin, director of human services for the City of St. Louis, said "everyone involved" is committed to the collaboration. "We don't want anyone to fall through the cracks. We meet the need."
Homelessness is a situation, and it does not define a person, said Agustin, who attends St. Nicholas Parish in St. Louis. "It happens through a crisis in life," she said. "Asking for help and receiving help is the hardest thing to do. Shame keeps people from asking family or community for help."
Steve Campbell, executive director of Peter and Paul Community Services, said that besides working with St. Patrick Center to open 85 cold-weather beds at the Biddle Housing Opportunities Center, "we are coordinating with the volunteers of Winter Outreach to help fill additional overflow beds" at churches in the community. "We are all working hard to ensure that no one else dies as a result of not having a warm, welcoming place."
Peach praised the Catholic community for its efforts to assist St. Patrick Center, including parishes that take part in the casserole program that helps feed men and women who are homeless.
Meanwhile, Walter Roddy of the "In God's Hand" ministry at St. Alban Roe Parish put out a call for new or gently used clean blankets after receiving an emergency request for help during the bitter cold. The Archdiocesan Curia collected blankets for the effort.
In Franklin County, Mercy Hospital in Washington has opened its doors to allow people to stay warm. Space has been made available in the hospital chapel and cafeteria, and hot tea is being provided during the extreme cold temperatures.
In St. Clair, The Congregation Messengers of Fatima started their ministry on Dec. 19, with a well-timed clothing distribution (in addition to a Christmas dinner) for rural poor just before the cold streak. According to superior Father Joseph Diep, the community's first outreach event served more than 100 people, including a youngster in dire need of a winter coat.
"A young man came with a boy about 7 years old, and he told me, 'This boy doesn't have any coats for the winter, so I came (to the dinner) and got three coats,'" Father Diep said. "He was very happy to have them."
A common need of those who are chronically poor and those in situational crisis is utility assistance, particularly during harsh winters and sweltering summers, when a lack of access could result in illness or death, according to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Louis.
As the costs of unpaid utility bills pile up, people in need struggle to cover other expenses, fueling a cycle of poverty. The Society responds by devoting more than half of its direct aid funding to utility assistance each year, helping St. Louisans in need meet their basic needs of a comfortable, safe place to live.
John Foppe, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's Archdiocesan Council of St. Louis, said some residents had their utilities cut off before the recent bitter cold weather hit because of financial struggles. The Missouri Public Service Commission's Cold Weather Rule, which prohibits or delays disconnection of heat-related service in some circumstances, went into effect Nov. 1 and runs until March 31. However, Foppe said, "there's certainly people out there without heat."
During the harsh St. Louis winter, EnergyCare's vulnerable clients are struggling just to keep up with their utilities and stay safely warm, said the agency's executive director, Tim O'Dea. "Every winter they are faced with bleak choices: heat or the rent; heat or their medicines; heat or groceries. Many of these people have chronic diseases that become even harder to manage during extreme cold snaps."
O'Dea's agency, founded by Sister Pat Kelley, CCVI, offers a number of simple, practical things to help people facing the winter without heat. This includes weatherizing homes to reduce bills and block out drafts; providing electric heaters and blankets ; and arranging emergency furnace repairs or paying gas bills to help people who cannot afford to restore their heat.
"Everyone in St. Louis feels the cold, but there are many in our community who need help staying warm and safe." O'Dea said.
(Dave Luecking of the Review staff contributed to this story)
>> How to help
• St. Patrick Center at www.stpatrickcenter.org/donate or by mail at 800 N. Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63101. For information, call (314) 0700. Donated items are accepted at the dock on Hadley Street Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
• Society of St. Vincent de Paul, www.svdpstlouis.org/donate or by mail at 1310 Papin Street, St. Louis, MO 63103. For information, call (314) 881-6000.
• Peter and Paul Community Services, www.ppcsinc.org/give/make-a-donation or by mail at Peter & Paul Community Services. 2612 Wyoming Street, St. Louis, MO 63118-2402 (payable to PPCS).
• EnergyCare, www.energycare.org or EnergyCare P.O. Box 63172, Saint Louis, MO 63163-9966, or call (314) 773-5968 ext. 23 to donate over the phone.
• Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service at www.jacares.org or by mail at 4116 N. McClay Road, St. Charles, MO 63304. For more information on making a donation, call (636) 441-1302, ext. 263 or email
• St. Louis Winter Outreach at www.stlwinteroutreach.org
Through partnerships with nonprofit agencies, volunteer groups and various departments within the City of St. Louis, winter operations efforts include increased outreach activities and additional shelter bed availability to accommodate unsheltered homeless men, women and children.
St. Louis County residents who are homeless or experiencing a housing crisis can seek assistance by calling the Emergency Shelter Hotline that is a collaboration between the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County, which jointly fund the program.Individuals or families seeking shelter should contact the following agencies:
• Call St. Louis Housing Helpline: (314) 802-5444
• Call United Way: 211
• Go to the Biddle Housing Opportunities Center: (314) 612-1675, 1313 N. Tucker St., St. Louis, MO 63101
St. Louis County and the Salvation Army partnered to provide expanded warming shelter services this winter. The shelter, 10740 Page Ave., is operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week until March 16.
Anyone in St. Charles, Lincoln or Warren counties who needs a warm place to sleep on nights when it’s 20 degrees or below can access “shelter” at a designated local church by calling (636) 395-0492 after 3 p.m. for details.
For a list of warming centers across the state of Missouri, see ogi.oa.mo.gov/DHSS/warmingCenter/index.htmlRELATED ARTICLE(S):In emergencies and otherwise, Catholics answer a greater call