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Federal judge allows clearing of St. Louis homeless encampment

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Federal judge allows clearing of St. Louis homeless encampment
A couple stand by their belongings after taking their tent down in a homeless encampment in St. Louis on Friday. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

May 2 (UPI) -- A federal judge in Missouri ruled Saturday that St. Louis officials can clear a homeless encampment downtown to limit the spread of coronavirus.

The ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy organization against criminalizing poverty, filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of homeless people who reside in the encampment. Ranata Frank, who resides there, was named in the suit, as one representative of the approximately 50 residents of the tent encampment.

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The filing of the suit Friday blocked a deadline that same day for the encampment occupants to leave.

City officials said that the tents' crowded and unsanitary conditions risked coronavirus spread. But the suit said clearing the encampment could increase the public health threat.

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Clearing the camp would conflict with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that says "clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread."

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The suit also called for a temporary restraining order, arguing that eviction from encampment under threat of arrest violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

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Frank said in the lawsuit that she has been seeking a home in St. Louis since November without success.

She added that three week ago she signed up for a bed in a hotel, but hasn't gotten one yet.

"For weeks, the City of St. Louis has stated that they have enough shelter for the people who want it. This is patently false," ArchCity Defenders attorney John Bonacorsi said in a statement. "As unhoused individuals, outreach workers and service providers know firsthand, there is a severe shortage of adequate shelter space for our local unhoused community, which means that there are hundreds of people who are forced to risk punishment and sleep outside."

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City officials said they arranged space in hotels for everyone residing in the encampments. They also denied that they were planning criminal charges or arrests and said the homeless residents have been offered testing for the virus.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Pitlyk denied plaintiff's request for a temporary restraining order in her ruling.

"The court cannot say that a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from taking the steps it reasonably deems necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 serves the public interest," Pitlyk said.

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Pitlyk set a preliminary injunction hearing for May 12.

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