Messenger: MoDOT wanted to get rid of a homeless camp. So it tore down a hill of trees. (2024)

Tony Messenger

Two tents stand alone on the hill where Tina Adams used to live.

It’s a section of state right-of-way on the southeast corner of Interstate 255 and Telegraph Road in south St. Louis County. You can see the Jefferson Barracks Bridge from there, although that wasn’t the case a few days ago.

That’s because the entire hill used to be covered in trees, grass and brush. Now it’s barren — except for the two abandoned tents and the remnants of a homeless camp — after bulldozers from the Missouri Department of Transportation flattened the area.

Adams, 42, is homeless. She’s lived in shelters in various places but doesn’t like them. “There’s too many people there,” she says. “Stuff gets stolen.”

On Thursday, she was holding a sign on the exit ramp, asking for money. She and a friend who lived in the formerly wooded area have found another place nearby, at least for now.

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So why were the trees that protected her tent from the outside world destroyed?

Messenger: MoDOT wanted to get rid of a homeless camp. So it tore down a hill of trees. (2)

That’s what Laurie Wiethop wanted to know. Wiethop lives in Oakville and drives by the intersection at least a couple of times a day. She noticed the MoDOT workers scraping the land last week and wondered what they were doing. So she emailed the state.

The trees were removed “for the safety of others” because of the “homeless camping out in that area,” she recalls a MoDOT customer service representative telling her.

Wiethop was hoping for a better explanation.

“It just seems a shame,” she says. “It feels like homeless people make some people uncomfortable.”

The clearing of a homeless camp is much more common in the city of St. Louis. MoDOT has previously cleared camps under overpasses in the city. And Mayor Tishaura Jones, like mayors before her, has cleared camps in city parks, outside City Hall and on the riverfront.

Messenger: MoDOT wanted to get rid of a homeless camp. So it tore down a hill of trees. (3)

When done with the best of intentions, there is usually a process that allows people living in such encampments to gather their belongings. There are also visits from social service agencies and nonprofits to see if anyone will accept offers of shelter.

On I-255, according to MoDOT, maintenance workers gave the two folks in the encampment notice that the encampment would be cleared. The people declined help, MoDOT says, and the bulldozers came.

The tents are still there, along with stray items from the camp: an Aldi bag, clothes, a propane bottle, a cooler and empty soda bottles.

Jill Vogel and Mary Sweeney live on Bridgeview Lane, the road adjacent to the frontage area.

“We couldn’t see the tents” before MoDOT cleared the trees, Vogel said Monday while walking her dogs.

They’re used to seeing folks on the highway ramps asking for money but were unaware of complaints about unhoused people or problems in the area.

MoDOT spokeswoman Marie Elliott told me in an email that state maintenance workers had been contacted by “customers/residents that campers were at the site. Maintenance contacted the campers to inquire if they needed assistance from homeless services. They declined any assistance and began relocating. Maintenance crews are now clearing trash, debris, brush, trees, etc., to discourage future campers.”

Asked if this was common procedure by MoDOT, Elliott responded, “It is common to clean each site after campers have relocated. Not all campsites have trees, of course, but clearing trees or shrubs as needed is part of routine work on roads/right of way maintained by MoDOT.”

Messenger: MoDOT wanted to get rid of a homeless camp. So it tore down a hill of trees. (4)

The drastic decision to scrape away trees on the hill highlights a problem Jones brought up recently to the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. While most of the services for unhoused people are provided in the city of St. Louis, the folks who need those services come from the entire region. Serving that population and helping those who don’t fit — for one reason or another — in a shelter, should be a regional commitment.

Jones is hardly the first person to seek a regional approach to homelessness, but her attempt to involve East-West Gateway is a step in the right direction. Ironically, the regional organization exists mostly to facilitate transportation discussions and planning in the region. In this case, transportation and homelessness have collided.

Clearing an encampment — of 2 people or 30 people — isn’t a long-term solution, and it just moves unhoused people from one place to another. But it’s too often how the fractured governments of the St. Louis region deal with issues.

That’s what concerns Wiethop with the tree-clearing approach.

“This just created another problem,” Wiethop says. “I don’t know what the solution is, but there will always be homeless people.”

—David Carson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this column.

Messenger: MoDOT wanted to get rid of a homeless camp. So it tore down a hill of trees. (5)

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“This just created another problem. I don’t know what the solution is, but there will always be homeless people.”

Laurie Wiethop,

Oakville resident



  • Tony Messenger
  • Commentary
  • Level 1
  • Homelessness
  • Missouri Department Of Transportation
  • East-west Gateway Council Of Governments
  • Tishaura Jones

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Messenger: MoDOT wanted to get rid of a homeless camp. So it tore down a hill of trees. (2024)
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