ST. LOUIS (AP) -- They live in the dark, damp, eerie tunnel underneath Tucker Boulevard in downtown St. Louis. It's a place where most people wouldn't venture.
Yet, for a homeless person, the reasons to seek refuge there are easy to list.
It gives you cover from the weather. You don't have to carry your belongings everywhere you go. There's no curfew, as the shelters have.
And there are rules: No drug abuse. No violence. No "excessive" alcohol use.
Like other families, the members protect one another. They offer a sympathetic ear, a sounding board. They listen to others' trials and tribulations.
As the economy has plummeted, the numbers of homeless have overwhelmed the city's shelters, which have to turn away scores of people on many nights.
Today, about two dozen homeless people take shelter under Tucker Boulevard, in an abandoned railroad tunnel that once connected two newspapers -- the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
But their days in the tunnel are numbered.
Road crews are expected to begin work in March to stabilize the section of Tucker from Washington Avenue to Cole Street. They will fill in the 30-foot-tall passageway once used by freight and passenger trains and rebuild the road, part of a $34 million effort to improve Tucker.
The homeless people now living in that space worry about what will happen to them in March. Where will they go?
"There will be one less safe place," said Diane M. Starr, 45, who has taken on the role of "mother" of the homeless family.
Inside the tunnel, gaze past the haze -- the cool air mixed with the sunlight peeking in -- and you'll see a line of tents propped on used carpet, to shield from the dirt and rocks underneath.
A sofa and loveseat, along with a desk to fill out paperwork, have been placed in the center of the tents. Stockpiles of food, water and extra bedding are piled on top of the carpet outside the tents.
"This is a peaceful environment," said Starr, 45, who has long, brown hair and big brown eyes. "When someone new comes down here, we try to talk to them."
Starr or another person will inform them of the rules.
"If we think they can live by those rules, we help them get the essentials that they need to survive: a tent, a sleeping bag, a pillow, warm clothes, blankets and gloves," Starr said. "If one of our family members has a need, we try to fill it. The colder it gets, the more crowded we are going to get."
Bill Siedhoff, St. Louis' chief of human services, says officials are aware that people live in places like the Tucker tunnel. The city typically takes the stance that if they are not causing a safety or health hazard -- to themselves or to others -- they can stay.
"But soon, because of the street construction, they will have to move," Siedhoff said. "We want to help them move out of conditions such as in a tunnel and get them into permanent housing."
That's something Starr says she and others want, too.
"I want to have a home by then," she said. "I want a normal life. ... I want my life back."
City officials and service agencies for the homeless estimate that on any given day, 1,000 chronic homeless men and women are on St. Louis streets.
For the people in the Tucker tunnel, church groups and homeless support groups often visit and offer food, sanitizer, soap, towels, bottled water, blankets and tents.
Catie Daugherty, 47, of St. Charles, works with a team of volunteers known as the 360 Connection that frequently checks on the people living under Tucker.
The city has many communities of homeless people, Daugherty said. They might live in abandoned warehouses, under bridges or make due in the window wells of businesses. The group under Tucker, she said, is somewhat different.
"They keep a clean house and don't put up with any nonsense," Daugherty said. "The reason they are doing well is that they are more like family, with a motto of 'Let's support each other, let's work together."'
But Dan Buck, head of the St. Patrick Center, an agency that helps the homeless and sits atop the Tucker tunnel, says what the people really need is to take advantage of programs such as job training and drug treatment. Too many of them show up at St. Patrick for lunch but then refuse offers for other help, he said.
"As long as people are taking them things and assisting them stay in their homeless situation, they cannot be helped," Buck said. "Until they are ready to take ownership, accountability and responsibility for their lives, there is not much we can do for them."
A year ago, Starr said, she never imagined ending up homeless. She was injured and lost her job as a tour guide. Her apartment building in Swansea got condemned. She says her son was put in foster care. She was out on the streets, and she made her way to St. Louis.
"Many, many people are just one paycheck away from where we are now," Starr said.
But she's not asking for sympathy.
"All homeless people are not drug addicts, alcoholics or mental cases," Starr said.
Rick Carney, 57, who has taken a fatherly role among the people in the tunnel, says he served in the Army in the Vietnam War before coming to this area. He worked at a manufacturing plant in St. Louis County for 28 years. He says he lost his job after the company was sold.
He then lost his home and began sleeping in his 2001 Oldsmobile Aurora. That was four years ago. His car got towed and that left him on the streets. He says he has applied for many jobs but with no success.
"You spend so much time on the streets trying to stay warm, trying to get something to eat -- standing in line for two hours for a hot meal," he said. "And then you have to carry all this stuff at the same time you are trying to improve your life. It's a vicious cycle. That's why I live down here."
Carney and Starr say they are waiting to be approved for Social Security disability, which could put them back into a real home, but the process can take years -- certainly not before the impending road project in March.
Susan Fanter, 33, lives about 25 feet above the others, on a ledge and under a steam pipe to keep her warm. It was a steep climb along the brown, dirt walls of the tunnel until one of the men carved steps into the wall of the tunnel.
Up on the ledge, Fanter has a kitchen table and a tent that houses a single box springs and mattress complete with a pillow, sheets and blankets. She uses plastic crates as shelves. A single red rose is propped in a water-filled glass.
Fanter said no services for the homeless were available where she lived, in Farmington, so "I hitchhiked up here. I've been homeless for five months."
She says she has met a nice man and has a lead on a job and somewhere to live. Her hope is to bring her four children to St. Louis to live with her.
But for now, while she tries to piece her life back together, the main concern is what to do come March.
"That will be a sad day for me," Fanter said. "I will once again lose my family -- this time, my tunnel family -- and my safety."
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)