ACD Justice Journal: Stories & Ideas for Liberation

It’s Time to Stop Throwing Away People on Hall Street

People impacted by the Workhouse have been showing the way for years. Why is the City still not fully listening?

By Z Gorley

April 29, 2024

Years ago, if someone asked you if the Workhouse would ever “not exist” what would you have said?

My answer has changed from “no” to “yes” because of the people who survived it and those who did not make it out alive.

The Workhouse: A Hellish Jail

For decades, the Medium Security Institution commonly known as the Workhouse, a notoriously hellish jail, was accepted as status quo in St. Louis. 

In April 2017, hundreds of poor people and Black people were caged amongst roaches, rodents, and black mold; threatened by death, sickness, and violence; and trapped in an isolated corner of the city, unable to buy their freedom. ArchCity Defenders had not yet filed the federal lawsuit alleging inhumane conditions, the lawsuit challenging cash bail, or the lawsuit claiming Louis Lyen Payton wrongfully died there, and the Close the Workhouse (CTW) campaign did not exist. 

The Movement to Close the Workhouse

The following year, people formerly detained at the Workhouse (directly impacted) joined together with those less familiar with its horrors to start a movement to close it. The organizations anchoring the efforts were Action St. Louis, M.O.R.E., The Bail Project – St. Louis, and ArchCity Defenders. After hundreds of meetings, rallies, and calls to action, Mayor Jones defunded the Workhouse in April 2021. The harrowing building has sat empty at the remote, industrial edge of the city since June 2022.  

But this shift of the status quo has not been without resistance.

Columnist Tony Messenger recently highlighted the City’s tendency to disregard public input about the Workhouse, citing a March hearing at City Hall that “offered a flashback to another time.” In 2020, directly impacted people testified why the jail should close, and two alders “were dismissive of the folks who used to be incarcerated, all but calling them liars.”  At the March hearing, 50 people, some of whom were in the same room years prior, were barred from speaking at the Board of Alderman’s Public Safety Committee meeting. Instead of being heckled (like in 2020), advocates were silenced— and the room was made to listen to people with no firsthand experience of the Workhouse talk about a very bad idea.

A Very Bad IDea: Tiny Homes at the Workhouse Site

The Jones administration had announced unilateral plans to continue the city’s history of disappearing poor people and Black people to its farthest, bleakest edges. It’s a move that blatantly ignores recommendations the city paid a committee to gather over nearly a two-year period. 

The proposals, shared in a comprehensive report with the mayor last year, compile extensive community-based input for future development of the area, (e.g., animal shelter, solar energy, prairie site, industrial use). The report also identifies commonly sought resources (e.g., housing, healthcare, youth programs) and explains in detail some uses for the site that the steering committee firmly opposes. Noting the environmental toxicity, physical isolation, and emotional trauma associated with the site, the report concludes this is not a suitable location for unhoused persons to reside. 

Last summer, the committee recommended the Jones administration do environmental testing but received no response. It wasn’t until the March hearing that the committee learned the Jones administration contracted with Professional Environmental Engineers, Inc. (PE) in August 2023 for the intended purpose of building tiny homes “for the unhoused community to use.”

Not only had the City sidelined people from speaking in favor of the report recommendations, but they never shared the contract or toxicity findings with the committee, and then stacked the roster with speakers who parroted the only thing the report recommended against.  

Back at City Hall

In addition to the environmental concerns, advocates returned to City Hall to share why building tiny homes on Hall Street is a very bad idea.

Here’s a few highlights:

Jackie, a longtime housing advocate who works in the field of permanent supportive housing, said, “I never thought I’d be here advocating against the opening of temporary shelter in St. Louis. However, the thought of placing human beings in a space just recently utilized for the dehumanizing practice of incarceration is disturbing to me as well as to many others in and out of this room.”  

“The mayor plans to essentially de facto revert the site back to the Workhouse. If you’re going to put people who are undesirable to you, Mayor Jones, back where they were prior to the closure of the Workhouse, then you did not listen to the steering committee, and it was all just a farce,” said Dom, a Paralegal and Civil Advocate with ArchCity Defenders. 

Rachel, Community Collaborations Associate with ArchCity Defenders, shared:  

[t]he environmental report that the steering committee was not given access to at any point in this process explicitly details that the land contains excessive levels of arsenic, lead, benzene, and three other chemical compounds. These compounds have devastating short- and long-term effects on humans including cancer and internal organ damage. The administration is already telling us that remediation, spreading some gravel and soil on the Workhouse site, will make their plan acceptable. 

“One of the neighboring parcels of the Workhouse, 7455 Hall Street, is so toxic that it is listed on the registration of confirmed uncontrolled hazardous waste disposal sites in Missouri. This is because even after remediation in the ‘90s with not just gravel but paved asphalt, the site testing still shows that the land is extremely toxic for human health. 

“My point here is that remediation of the Workhouse site will not be enough to make this region habitable. The Workhouse land was used to store massive leaking petroleum tanks before it was a jail. Read the environmental report,: even the field notes from the scientists say that right now the soil smells of petroleum just a few inches below the surface.”

Theo, a member with the Catholic Workers of St. Louis testified:

“I believe that the folks who live in our streets who are unhoused are our neighbors. I don’t know how loving it is to try and disappear them into a part of the city where nobody goes, to put them in an area that is not a neighborhood. I believe that the folks who were at the Workhouse were our neighbors too, and that we made that same mistake back then. As somebody who does take public transportation in the St. Louis metro area, it’s not great and this location is not great for it. I would urge you all not to make this site, but to make some other site or multiple sites a place for housing folks, housing them with their neighbors in a neighborhood and I support the re-envisioning the workhouse proposals.” 

KB, an Attorney with ArchCity Defenders, who works with unhoused individuals and has supported shelter and outreach mutual aid work since 2016, added: 

“Just two weeks ago, a man was arrested during a sweep in Soulard, where people’s belongings were bulldozed under threat of arrest.” 

“Officers said he was targeted because he lived in a camp that was too visible to housed neighbors and did not leave. He lost all of his personal belongings. The City even threw away tubs that he had carefully packed and labelled with his name. He spent nights in jail because he was visible in public space. 

If he was targeted for arrest a few years ago, he would have been taken to the Workhouse. 

Today, in direct opposition to the [hundreds of] Workhouse survivors that participated in the report, the Mayor wants to put unhoused people at the jailhouse site again. 

Let’s be clear: Unhoused individuals need homes, not sheds on toxic jailhouse land. This is a place that holds horrific trauma for many unhoused individuals. This is a place with severe environmental health hazards, proposed for a population that is disproportionately disabled and medically vulnerable. This is an industrial place, hidden from public sight, grocery stores, and bus lines. This is a place where unhoused residents told me they had lost a friend a few years back, killed by the street racing on Hall Street. 

If this committee cares about our unhoused neighbors, then by all means please fund safe shelters. Fund housing. Fund one of the many community-led, safe tiny homes projects that have been proposed over the years- not sheds on toxic jailhouse land. 

Maya, an organizer with Freedom Community Center, expressed:

“The problem behind the walls of the Workhouse disappearing unhoused people into tiny sheds on toxic land continues an infamous St. Louis legacy of the City— using this land to exile people they have deemed undesirable. Closing the Workhouse was a step in the right direction. Thank you to all of the directly impacted people who worked on the campaign. Your commitment made this possible. You deserve reparations for everything you survived. 

The people who survived the Workhouse have informed us what they want to see happen now that this abhorrent facility’s no longer operating… the people want to see healing. The people want to see a transformation take place in the City. This looks like people visiting a newly established offsite memorial community resource hub to have their needs met. If we provide the means for people to have their basic needs met, we will see a natural reduction of harm and violence in our community.” 

Jocelyn, a member of the committee and Close the Workhouse campaign, said “this was a meaningful process to get to this point of having a Memorial Resource Hub. Not having a need met is what got some of us there in the first place. So, we would light up the dark by re-envisioning a sanctuary of services.”

Inez, Deputy Director of Community Collaborations at ArchCity Defenders testified:

“The story that led to me being locked in the Workhouse? There are hundreds, maybe thousands like it. “Next time you see news about some issue important to a directly impacted person, some survivor of an oppressive system or policy failing, I would hope you pause to consider three things: (1) it could happen to you, (2) the person who experienced it knows firsthand what it was like, and (3) listen to the call to action being made and do something.”

“I was deeply involved in every single aspect of the process to Re-envision the Workhouse and the only people who have ever come out and said, ‘we should use the Workhouse as a homeless shelter,’ or ‘we should use the Workhouse for tiny homes’ are people who have never spent a single night at the Workhouse. During this year long process, I sat down and had conversations with 367 people who had been impacted by the Workhouse and none of them said we should put tiny homes there.”

Despite the ways the City has disregarded subject matter experts when it comes to the Workhouse—it is now St. Louis’ former jail, and our status quo has shifted.  

Resisting the ‘wrong side’ of history

If history has shown us anything, the attempts to sideline, discredit, or malign the voices of people who have firsthand experience about the Workhouse are rather short-lived. 

Once again, we’re seeing individuals who survived the Workhouse, and the movement around them, continue to stand up to people in power on the ‘wrong side’ of history. 
This month, The People’s Plan St. Louis, a grassroots coalition and policy agenda designed to redistribute power and resources in St. Louis City, shared a list of wins and updated objectives. One of the wins included:  

Emptying and defunding of Workhouse jail after several years of organizing and campaigning. In June of 2021, the Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse, was finally closed and funds were reallocated within the City’s budget. A city-commissioned community-based process provided a clear roadmap of what to do with the land and the funds that were used to maintain the site. The Close the Workhouse campaign is now focused on the implementation of that vision. 

If you are someone who wants to learn more and get involved in shifting the status quo of our beloved city, here are a couple of ideas: 

  • Practice listening to and supporting survivors of state harm (police, courts, cages)  
  • Follow Close the Workhouse on social media  
  • Mark your calendars and join us for #FreedomSummerSTL – starting Juneteenth!