- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A large homeless encampment near downtown St. Louis will soon be torn down due to health and safety concerns, but the city’s Human Services director says officials will work with the residents to help them find better alternatives.

About 25 people are living in 21 tents on vacant land that is essentially the first thing motorists see as they cross the new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge. Human Services director Eddie Roth said officials want to help encampment residents find better living conditions and point them to social service agencies that can help them find work and address addiction and medical needs.

“We’ve had good success in helping people who have been through tent encampments find something more stable,” Roth said. “Permanent housing is the objective.”

Just three years ago, St. Louis officials tore down an encampment with more than 100 residents along the Mississippi River in an industrial area near downtown. Bulldozers cleared the land dubbed “Hopeville” by the homeless people who lived there.

Roth said crime tends to be high at homeless encampments. Other safety concerns are raised, too. Earlier this winter, a man at another small encampment near downtown was critically injured by a fire inside his tent.

But several residents at the encampment on Tuesday said the area has been virtually crime-free since August, when Chad Bergman put down the first tent.

Bergman, 40, is considered the “mayor” of the encampment. He also lived in Hopeville before it was demolished, then found work and a home. Last summer, he left his truck-driving job after an argument.

Bergman is skeptical that the city has any real plan to help the encampment’s residents.

“Unless they have a place to take everybody, all they’re going to do is push us back on the street somewhere,” Bergman said. “At least here, everybody is safe and warm. We’re all friends. At least we’ve got each other.”

The encampment is organized. Residents must vote in anyone who seeks to join them. Donated food donated is kept in a tent and logged. A portable restroom and a trash bin are nearby. Wooden pallets are lined end-to-end through the brown grass to allow older residents to move more easily.

Many residents declined to give their names, saying they didn’t want relatives to know about their plight. Some worried that if removed, they’ll be forced to live back on the streets or in vacant buildings.

Roth admits finding housing for the homeless can be a challenge since homeless people from throughout the region typically end up in St. Louis because neighboring communities lack resources for them. There is no official count of how many are homeless in St. Louis but Roth said the number is in the hundreds.

The city is sensitive to the needs of those in the encampment and will not hurry the residents out, Roth said, adding that most experts believe “almost all people who are living outside will come inside if they’re presented a reasonable chance of stability that respects their dignity.”

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