Meet the St. Louis woman who drives around the city to help homeless people

tent set up under highway overpass
Photo credit Debbie Monterrey/KMOX

For 15 years, Cathryn Shaw has been helping homeless people on the streets of St. Louis. Several times a week, she drives through downtown, along the riverfront and the warehouses, checking in on people and bringing them things they need: bag lunch, sleeping bags, tarps, shoes, socks. If she doesn't have a requested item she'll make a note of it and try to find that person on her next visit.

"The biggest misconception people have about the homeless is that they're dangerous," says Shaw. "In 15 years I've had one incident. And that was about a dog! Never have I had anybody in any way be aggressive toward me or mean or any of that."

Shaw was working for a company in the riverfront warehouses and was told not to turn "that way" because there were homeless people. But she did turn that way and discovered a young couple living on an old dock. The woman was pregnant. She and a co-worker began bringing them food and driving the woman to her doctor's appointments. Then she began noticing homeless people everywhere, and she began asking them what they needed.

Eventually, she quit her job and started her non-profit, All Among Us, which now has three core programs. What she does on the streets is "crisis direct aid."

"We provide relief," she explains. "We learn your name, ask what do you need and we try to meet those needs in real time. People don't ask for cigarettes, they're not asking for money, they're not asking for bus passes. They may ask for food or a sleeping bag or a tarp. But they don't ask for things. We offer things. And sometimes, we build a strong enough relationship to say, hey, let's get your IDs. You're an old man now, you can't even get up off the sidewalk. Let's get you into something permanent."

Shaw believes what is most needed is permanent affordable housing, something seriously lacking. She says another misperception people have about homelessness is that there are plenty of services to help them. There's little housing and limited shelter space. Many homeless don't want to go into a temporary shelter because they can't bring all their belongings so whatever they have to leave on the street will get stolen or tossed out.

One man living in a tent in a grassy, garbage-strewn lot near abandoned warehouses says he's hoping they can get into a program to get housing but says it's a long wait. His partner agrees.

"It takes forever," she says. "Forever ever. But the good Lord brought us Ms. Cathryn!"

Cathryn tells them she's bringing them more large garbage bags so they can clean up the lot, saying the city is more likely to allow them to stay if the property isn't so messy. She says if too many homeless congregate in one place, the city will break it up. She brings them propane to heat their tent. She brought them sleeping bags the week before but worries rain in the forecast is going to soak everything.

Another important All Among Us program is the Women's Care Center in Ferguson, which Shaw says is  transformational housing for women who have a desire to be different two years from now than they are today. The women have to be clean of drugs and alcohol and embark on a journey that includes job training, financial literacy, and other things that can move the women from homelessness to eventually their own apartment. The Women's Care center has a 60% rate of recovery, which Shaw says is unheard of, but a big reason for it is the Aftercare so the women always have a support system.

As far as helping people get off the streets, "It's not going to work unless they have an active advocate in their lives," she explains. "They're too sick. I say if someone comes on the streets and they don't have mental illness, give them three months and they will."

Featured Image Photo Credit: Debbie Monterrey/KMOX