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ST. LOUIS — Wayne Long starts the tour of his home in the basement.
It’s a unique place. Long and his wife, Joan, live in an old warehouse building in the riverfront area near Soulard.
The Longs came to St. Louis from Georgia. Joan was a flight attendant for TWA. When the flight attendants went on strike in 1986, Joan and a friend started a catering company, Patty Long Catering.
The company grew over time, with contracts to cater at many revered local institutions, such as the Missouri History Museum. Wayne quit his job to help run it. They eventually needed a larger location, and they found it in the three-story, red-brick warehouse that would become their home for 24 years and counting.
Built in 1847, the building once housed a pool-table manufacturing company. When the Longs bought it, their son was 10. They turned the top floor into their living area and remodeled the first floor into a banquet hall. They sold the catering business a few years ago. Now it’s just them in the building.
Back to the basement. On the east side of the building, outside the stone foundation, is a concrete wall. That’s one of the city’s first flood walls, Wayne says. In later years, after the river was channelized and moved farther east, the wall was incorporated into the building.
That’s the thing about old buildings in St. Louis. They often tell the long, winding story of the city.
So it is for 112 Sidney Street. That particular story took a turn two weeks ago, during the deep freeze that brought below-zero temperatures.
The Longs had been talking for a while with Peter & Paul Community Services about selling their building to the nonprofit. Peter & Paul is one of the largest providers of services to unhoused people in St. Louis. It has been looking for a larger space to replace its current site in the basement of Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church.
The Longs think their building would be perfect. As happens in these cases, neighbors — in this instance business owners — have urged the city not to allow a shelter there. But in mid-January, when the winter freeze turned deadly, the building briefly became one.
The city and various nonprofits each year come up with a winter plan for pop-up shelters to help save folks who live on the streets. As January’s temperatures dropped, even those additional shelters were full. But volunteers identified 40 or so people who were still in danger of freezing to death.
Anthony D’Agostino, the CEO of Peter and Paul, called the Longs and asked if they would open their building. The couple agreed, as long as it was staffed, and the city approved the emergency arrangement. Adam Pearson, the city’s director of Human Services, gave the OK. Another nonprofit, House Everyone STL, helped provide funding for staff members, and the Longs’ banquet room became an emergency shelter for four days.
“It was so cold,” Joan remembers. “They were so compassionate about getting the people off the street.”
She hopes the experience can renew the conversation with neighbors and city leaders about the building becoming a permanent shelter — and not just with cots on the first floor, but with use of the building’s industrial kitchen and other spaces. The Longs plan to keep living in the building even if it becomes a shelter.
“Frankly, I think it would add some vibrancy to this corner of the world,” Joan says. “Sometimes, people are just fearful of the unknown.”
D’Agostino, who has had three different locations for an expanded shelter opposed by neighbors, hopes the trial run at the Longs’ building can rekindle discussions with the city.
“Without Joan and Wayne, we would have had more than 50 people out in the cold,” D’Agostino says. “We saved lives. It’s hard to say that we want to improve the homeless situation in the city and then say no every time a shelter is proposed.”
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