The New Life Evangelistic Center in downtown St. Louis has long been at odds with the city over its ability to safely shelter more than a hundred people every night. But a big part of what keeps the shelter afloat has been left out of the debate: its practice of requiring long-term residents to work full time without pay in exchange for room and board. In addition, residents who receive supplemental social security checks for their disabilities are required to donate 40 percent of their income to the church.
The shelter’s director, Reverend Larry Rice, calls it “work experience.”
“It’s a two year leadership program where people have the opportunity to learn those skills, and from those skills they can then move on,” Rice said.
About 70 people participate in the long term program at shelter locations throughout the state, Rice said. Jobs range from janitorial work to tending farm animals. Other residents help staff Rice’s network of evangelical radio and television stations, which bring in about $300,000 a year in revenue, according to financial reports. That figure does not include the $1.5 million that New Life and its affiliates received in cash donations last year.
As described by New Life officials in a recent federal lawsuit, part-time work hours and attendance at church are required for residents who stay for longer than a month but fewer than three months. After three months, residents must join the two year, full-time work program in order to stay. Attendance at New Life’s worship services is also mandatory for long-term residents.
Rice emphasizes that his work program is optional. He defends his practice of taking 40 percent of disabled residents’ social security checks.
“It’s actually 30 percent and the ten percent is voluntary, tithe. That is often emphasized because we want to be sure that person really wants to be a part of this particular work,” Rice said.
Rice said fewer than four people are paying New Life out of their disability benefits.
Donna Price joined the program after New Life staffers approached her while she was staying in the emergency shelter. At first, the 46 year old worked as a resident assistant on the women’s floor, helped with check-ins and supervised the overnight drop-in shelter in New Life’s first-floor sanctuary, she said. Later, Price started working in the business office, which she calls an internship.
“Obviously I showed some type of leadership where they picked up on that,” Price said. “I took it as an honor and a privilege. I really took that job very, very seriously.”
Price said the situation wasn’t ideal. It’s a two-year program, and she has children who live in Iowa. But, she said, New Life gave her a roof over her head when other shelters were full. She only has to look out the window to see the alternative.
“There will be somebody sleeping in this park across the street from the library tonight. And I don’t like that, that’s just sad,” Price said.
The program raises a lot of red flags for advocates like Amanda Colegrove, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking and Exploitation.
“It doesn’t look like there are a lot of checks and balances to keep people who are already vulnerable from being further exploited,” Colegrove said.
A person participating in this program should know how much their 40 hours of work is worth, and how much their room and board costs, Colegrove said.
Without that documentation, “they could be taken advantage of and not ever really know that,” Colegrove said. “There’s a lot of room here for shady dealings.”
But even if this practice is unethical, it doesn’t appear to be illegal. Most regulations regarding homeless shelters fall to the local authorities which distribute federal funds for emergency and transitional housing. In the city of St. Louis, that entity is the Human Services Department, led by director Eddie Roth.
Unlike most shelters in St. Louis, New Life does not receive public funding. So when it comes to regulations over what they can and can’t require their residents to do, they mostly operate “off the grid,” Roth said. He said he wasn’t aware of New Life’s work program until a reporter from St. Louis Public Radio asked.
“If [shelters] don’t take public money the rules that govern them really just have to do with safety, occupancy and fire hazards and life safety hazards,” Roth said.
When a young man was stabbed to death while staying at New Life in 2008, it was his parents who brought charges against the shelter, not the city. In October, another wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the family of a veteran killed by a fire in one of New Life’s satellite shelters that did not have a working fire alarm.
After viewing New Life’s description of their two-year program, Roth said even without knowing any more details about the program, he does not condone it.
“It is hard for me to understand the ethical justification of conditioning housing to a person who is homeless on a combination of full-time ‘volunteering’ turning over a disability check and regular attendance at religious services—in other words, using the coercive power of housing to compel this kind of participation,” Roth wrote in an e-mail.
“What's certain is this: People and institutions that are primarily interested—and most successful—in helping people out of homelessness and into housing and stability don't leverage imbalances in power. They keep it simple. They remove barriers. They quickly connect people to housing and services. They open their programs to public scrutiny,” Roth said.
There hasn’t been a major study to see how many shelters do things like charge for a stay or require unpaid work. Advocates for the homeless say that, anecdotally, these practices are not uncommon. A quick Google search turns up a few examples:
- In Tampa Bay, FL, a “work therapy” program for homeless men requires unpaid, full time work in exchange for shelter and food. A Tampa Bay Times investigation found that participants were made to work in construction, telemarketing, and behind the concession stands of professional sports games, with all of their earnings going to their bosses. An investigation by the Department of Labor turned up no evidence of wrongdoing.
- In New York City, public shelters began charging rent to homeless residents with jobs in 2009. The plan was abandoned in 2010.
- When a downtown Los Angeles shelter faced an overflow, it began charging residents $7 a night, keeping $2 in a savings account for residents when they left.
For Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, each component part of New Life’s work program is something he’s seen before. What’s unique, he said, is that they’re being deployed in conjunction.
“Some places, just to keep the shelter running, there’s a certain amount of work that needs to be done, and somebody’s got to do it. And if they don’t have enough money to hire people do to it, a lot of time they ask the residents to do it,” Berg said.
What should be established is choice, Berg said. Do residents have another option if they don’t want to attend religious services, donate their disability checks and work for free?
“If they don’t think it’s going to help them there’s another shelter they can choose, then it’s less concerning. But if this is the only shelter available then it’s much more concerning,” Berg said.
It’s hard to determine the availability of other shelters, however. Even though St. Louis just opened a new emergency shelter in the city, many transitional housing programs for long term residents have waiting lists.
Rice, however, denies that his program takes advantage of people in a vulnerable situation.
“We get people that no one else wants to hire, in many cases, no one else wants to work. They’ve had other jobs, they’ve lost jobs. They’ve had alcohol problems. They’ve had other problems and we’re helping them work through those particular problems. But we don’t think of it as a treatment program. We think of it as involving them in a community and helping them to discover a sense purpose,” Rice said.
Rice said he can point to many examples of people who have completed the program and moved out into their own apartments. Many of them come back to work for him, and say they were happy with the choice they made. To call this coercive, Rice said, is absurd.
Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.