ST. LOUIS — A few weeks ago, about 150 people were living in an abandoned railroad tunnel beneath the streets of St. Louis.
Now, only a half-dozen or so remain in the dark area dubbed "Hopeville," which sits below Tucker Boulevard on the northwest corner of downtown. And those who lingered Wednesday were preparing to leave, packing up their belongings to beat a deadline the city set for them to clear the tunnel.
One man in his 50s, who declined to give his name, was getting his possessions together so he could move. The balding, gray-haired, mustached man in blue jeans and a T-shirt displayed his belongings. A card table and chairs sat inside his small blue tent along with a cot that had a couple mattresses on it, a hot plate and canned food on a shelf.
He and the others must be out of the tunnel by 8 a.m. Friday. Those who remain past that time will face being arrested for trespassing.
St. Louis is using $34 million in federal stimulus money to rebuild the street above the tunnel. Tucker Boulevard is crumbling and sinking in spots, causing enough concern that several blocks have been shut down to limit weight over the tunnel.
As part of the rebuild, the tunnel will be filled in. Work will start within weeks.
City officials and homeless advocates said they are not expecting any protests or sit-ins Friday.
"We expect that this is going to be resolved in a peaceful way, in a sensible way," said Bill Siedhoff, St. Louis' director of Human Services.
Two weeks ago, the Rev. Larry Rice and members of his New Life Evangelistic Center helped lead a march to City Hall demanding that at least an acre of city land be donated for Hopeville residents to relocate. The city made no such offer.
But Rice has helped develop a new site not far away where many of the Hopeville residents plan to set up their tents on a grassy lot next to another homeless encampment dubbed "Dignity Harbor."
"The people have found their own alternative," Rice said. "They're gradually moving over there."
Siedhoff said the city is also working with people from the tunnel to help them find permanent housing.
City officials learned in January that about two dozen people were living in the tunnel, Siedhoff said. The city found housing for nearly all the tunnel dwellers, and as Easter approached, only a few people remained, he said.
Then, suddenly in early spring, an estimated 150 people were living in the tunnel. City officials accused Rice of moving people out of his downtown shelter to the tunnel as a publicity stunt.
Rice denied that, but said he did agree to give tents, blankets and other goods to needy people who were living in the tunnel.
Residents said the tunnel provided shelter from the weather and, although dotted with trash and rodents, allowed for a sense of community. But Siedhoff said it "really is a dangerous place" to live.
He said the city's effort to find permanent living quarters for the homeless is paying off — the number of people without housing in St. Louis has declined 30 percent in the past five years.