Students Shelter Community in Crisis


Late Tuesday and into Wednesday, much of the Midwest experienced plummeting temperatures that froze even the grittiest Americans. While the wind chill in St. Louis did not plummet to Chicago’s degree, its sub-zero temperatures resulted in school cancellations and early closures of businesses. At approximately 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Kent Porterfield, Saint Louis University’s vice president for student development, sent a campus-wide email warning students, staff and faculty of dangerously low temperatures and the clothing that should be worn to avoid frostbite.

But what if students could not afford warm winter coats?

What if they did not have a suitable place to sleep?

While many SLU students are privileged enough to have a warm place to stay and proper clothing during the polar vortex, student Devonn Thomas believed Porterfield’s email should have addressed those who did not have access to such commodities. She wanted a shelter to also be made available for the homeless community outside of SLU.  

Thomas wasted no time to address her concern with Porterfield and Jonathan Smith, vice president for diversity and community engagement. “At 3 p.m., I walked to [Smith’s office] and said that we need some place for people to stay tonight because it was cold out,” Thomas said. “He hesitated for maybe 30 seconds, and said ‘Devonn, what are you talking about?’ I told him that people are cold, and we have so much access at SLU. It makes no sense to not use our resources for people who need them.”

The likeliness of acquiring a space last minute was slim, though, according to Smith. Out of the activist organizations that Thomas reached out to to implement the initiative, SLU’s Labre became an integral factor in enabling its success.

“[Dr. Porterfield and Dr. Smith] figured things out administratively, like how we have a building,” Thomas said. “I chose Il Monastero at first because I knew that it is a nice building and had private rooms. There were a bunch of rapid-fire ideas coming out, so we talked to Tim Huffman, who is the leader of Labre, and he agreed to help staff.”

Il Monastero sheltered 11 people in its 12-room facility from 7 p.m. Tuesday to 9 a.m. Wednesday. By early evening, over 25 students, faculty and staff donated coats, gloves, hats and scarves for the homeless to use. Thomas explained that patrons were able to watch movies and play games in the separate spaces while enjoying a cooked meal. Separate bedrooms also allowed for privacy and inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community, according to Thomas.

“So many shelters are not inclusive of people who are queer and trans,” she said. “It is their active choice to have non-gendered spaces and non-gendered rooming, and it is important to us because we know what it means to be marginalized on the margins. They are already homeless, but some are homeless and trans or homeless and queer.”

Thomas, Huffman and Labre students sheltered the homeless through Thursday morning – but on Wednesday night, occupants, which included the homeless and volunteers, were housed at Manresa Center. The facility allowed for 30 occupants, and 27 stayed the night.

While the initiative was successful in providing the necessary clothing and room and board, Huffman expressed how there were multiple ways of responding to the crisis. “Clearly, it was a weather crisis,” he said. “[The question was raised as to whether] we should open a new shelter or could we have supported an existing shelter. My dream is that this the start of a very serious conversation in which we think about our roles in the community and how we can respond and plan better.”

Huffman said that he is proud of how quickly SLU responded to helping the homeless, but he also said that the community should not stop with just sheltering.

“We wouldn’t need emergency shelters if we were better at housing people,” Huffman said.