Saturday, September 10, 2011

Hopeville, Saint Louis, MO, USA

During the Great Depression, my grandmother and grandfather were a newly married couple. Their first home together was in a Tent City in northwest Tarrant County Texas in the area of where Eagle Mountain Reservoir would eventually be as the dam was completed and the reservoir began to fill up. My grandfather was one of the lucky ones working for the Civilian Conservation Corps. He had a job and they had a home, albeit a tent. Plus, they had a community.

Our friend, Connie, called Saturday morning and said, “Barbi, you have to come out here and see this. We are in Hopeville, the tent city.” So, Debbie, Tucker and I jumped in the car and went there.

What is community but a diverse group of people pulled together by a common thread. That is Hopeville.
Connie had been told to talk to “Big Mama” before she walked into the community. So, she asked for Big Mama. She was told that Big Mama was in the shower and would be out soon.

Shower? In a tent city?

Well, why not, indeed? When we used to camp a lot, we had one of those black water bags with a shower hose attached. Fill it up, let it sit in the sun for a while and a nice warm shower c ould be had even out in the woods. So, why not in Hopeville? I have no idea what their shower looked like but I do know that “necessity is the mother of invention.”

Picturesque it was not. There were many rickety looking structures, fraying tarps and tall weeds all around the area. But if one looked deeper, there were tents raised on platforms to keep them out of any rainwater runoff. There was a popup camper and a few more tents hidden away in the woods with front porches and areas to sit and enjoy the company of neighbors or the quiet of the evening…at least as quiet as it can be in the city.

There was the communal area where meals are shared if one had a desire to do so. There were port-a-potties set off from the “homes”. There is even a mail box set up on 1st Street and a USPS vehicle delivered mail while we were there.

The Saturday morning of our visit, a local preacher had come by to share a prayer, a scripture and a blessing before the breakfast. The smell of sausage, onions and hashbrowns cooking filled the air. Eggs had been brought by Connie and her husband. We came empty handed…not knowing what was expected or what was needed.

So, we just listened and looked. And asked a few questions.

Big Mama used to work in Social Services, mostly with people who had mental health issues. She was laid off and ended up losing her home. She is now the “Major” of Hopeville. One guy is the Constable type person, making certain that things don’t get out of hand and that order is kept. One couple had been in Hopeville in the past but had just returned two months ago. He was trained as a chef at Cordon Bleu Culinary School. He started work at the age of 15 as a grill cook. He supervised the cooking for the morning meal.

Away from the main crowd was a young couple. I don’t know their intentions but it seemed obvious that they had a purpose and were about to set off to accomplish that which they had planned. Not that much different than many other young couples on any given Saturday morning.

It occurred to me at the moment of watching them, rather naively, I might add, that just because one does not have a stationary building overhead does not mean that one is “home” less. A home is where one’s heart is, so the saying goes.

As the young woman walked past us after getting her breakfast, she told us thank you…as if we had done something other than just BE in their space. She and her male companion got in their car and left to do whatever it was they had planned.

Although I do know that being homeless can and does create anxiety, stress and fear which can lead to disorders associated with mental illness, I will venture to say that there are many other reasons for homelessness other than mental health.I didn’t meet anyone in Hopeville that had any more evidence of mental illnesses than those of us visiting. There was laughter, good natured ribbing, one grouchy old guy, sassy young people, some aloof, many sort of wary, some singing, some shouting orders… there was even a dog chasing a cat. Everyone seemed to very normal. (whatever the heck that is…) Perhaps ordinary is a better word to use. Everyone seemed ordinary.

There are many opinions about Hopeville and whether or not it should be allowed to remain a viable community. Larry Rice and the New Life Evangelistic Center believe that the tent city is a better alternative than living on the streets. Lord knows, NLEC is full to capacity at any given time. As I have seen, the city seems full of people with no homes looking for some sort of space they can claim as their own. The area surrounding Centenary Methodist Church and St. Patrick’s Center always have people milling about.

I have to say that I agree with the thought that a community that has tent shelter is safer than little or no community living in an alcove of a building or behind a dumpster in the alley. In my three and a half years in the city, homelessness seems far more of a problem now than before. There are definitely more women and children on the streets now than there were three years ago.

Yet, I also realize that a tent city, subsidized or merely allowed to exist, could be seen as creating a new and different problem and that a more permanent solution needs to be created. I do, however, question the motives of some. I was told by a few of the residents that LumiƩre Place Casino does not like them living so near for fear it will hurt business.

In January, 2011, the City of St. Louis established rules that allowed the residents of Hopeville to stay if they did not harm themselves or others or any property. The City banned “drugs, criminal activity and drunkenness.” (Aren’t these rules everywhere??) Propane cookers/heaters and safely contained fires could be used for cooking and heating. Now, we were told, there is a new eviction date – December 2011.

Is a Tent City the best place for these people to live? Well, surely no, one might immediately claim. Perhaps the reasoning would include that they do not own the property. Or that it is unsafe. Or that the winters are far too cold to thrive in a tent. Or maybe people are just idyllic and believe everyone should have a home. I can see the merit in all but I especially like that last one. I believe that also.

However, it is disingenuous to say that we contribute to the problem by allowing the people to live in tents in the city. Or that by giving people blankets and coats and food we compound the problem because it keeps them from going into the shelters where they would be better for them. I love it when we so easily determine what is best and better for other people. How kind of us!

We would like to think that everyone has a place to get out of the extreme weather and to be safe. We especially love the thought that if a person is homeless, they choose to be shelter-less – to live outside of the rules required to get inside the shelter. It is justified reasoning – the reason doesn’t have to be real; it only has to justify the actions…or non action.

Is Hopeville a place I would want to live? No, not really. But then, I can guaran-damn-tee that I would rather live in a tent behind the levee wall than to live in an alcove of a building in the middle of the city. I can also see a great deal of personal autonomy living in a community with community made rules rather than in a shelter run by people trying to do good by ensuring that others follow every rule.

Do-gooders are sometimes the bane of a good deed.

Meanwhile, as we have this discussion, there are people who do not qualify for one of the empty beds in the city shelters. Then there are people who do not wish to have one of the empty beds because they feel they are perfectly capable of providing that on their own. Regardless of those who want or don’t want one of the beds or whether those of us who have beds feel they are or are not worthy of said bed, the common statement I heard in Hopeville is the same one I hear from those who walk through the Cathedral…

…they all just want a job. 

1 comment:

Lindy said...

So sad that these people can't be allowed to live on their own. In Austin there's a large community of people who simply don't want a house or the hassles that go with living in one. They fancy themselves artists and/or free spirits. Maybe a few are a little nuts, but not much, and they are happy with their lives. Just like in your town, though, there's always someone coming along trying to make it illegal for them to exist. I agree that they have to stay on land that doesn't belong to someone else, and that is a big problem. And, especially now that Texas has such dry conditions, I want cooking and heating done safely. But I really think that if social service agencies work WITH these people, instead of against them, they can be allowed to live safely any way they want. Problem is, they want to control them. Sad. I hope your friends get to stay in their homes.