ST. LOUIS – The St. Louis Mayor’s Office is setting the record straight on the future of the former Medium Security Institution prison, known as the Workhouse.

Mayor Tishaura Jones is floating the idea of turning the site into a new tiny home village for the city’s unhoused. 

Activists accuse Jones of wanting to hide the homeless on polluted land, cut off from the rest of the city. 

The last inmates left the Workhouse about 2 years ago. The mayor campaigned for office on the issue of closing the Workhouse due to its documented history of inhumane conditions.

The mayor called for public input on how best to reuse the site, hearing from nearly 2,500 residents. A committee of various stakeholders issued a report in January, recommending everything from a solar farm and open prairie to temporary housing specifically for unhoused people who have pets.   

The Workhouse is a 30-acre site surrounded by an industrial business zone. Richard Patzius, who served a 90-day sentence there for misdemeanor assault in the 1990s, said putting any kind of housing there would be absurd.

“There’s no living area around here, period. Once you put people in here, they’re stuck here. The traffic’s terrible. This is the trucking industry. There’s 18-wheelers all over the place. The smell in the air smells like pollution,” Patzius said.    

“One thing that we know is support for the unhoused is a pressing need in St. Louis right now,” Conner Kerrigan, communications director for the mayor’s office, said. 

City ordinances require neighbor approval of new homeless shelters, complicating efforts to address St. Louis’ unhoused population of more than 1,250 people last year. The number was nearly the highest it has been in five years. 

“If we do go forward with a tiny home community (at the Workhouse site), building wraparound services on that plot would absolutely be an essential part of that plan,” Kerrigan said. “We need to talk to folks who can offer those wraparound services. We need to talk to Bi-State about getting public transportation up there. There are the environmental concerns we need to remediate before any changes can be made. So, we’re very, very early on in the process still.”

The mayor also remains committed to the idea of an on-site memorial to those who suffered or even died in the prison and exploring more than one future use at the same time. One thing has been decided: the guard towers and razor wire will be gone.

“It’s a big space. The city owns that entire plot of land. So, there’s definitely opportunities for multiple uses for that space, (but) those guard towers don’t have a place there,” Kerrigan said. 

The mayor says she will share updates and a full timeline for environmental remediation in the coming months.