An effort by a group of downtown St. Louis residents to shutter the New Life Evangelistic Center got underway on Tuesday in front of the city's Board of Public Service.
It was the first of what will be several days of testimony on whether the homeless shelter run by the Rev. Larry Rice is a detriment to the surrounding neighborhood. The quasi-judicial proceeding was prompted by a petition from 134 people who own property within a prescribed radius of the shelter, which is at the corner of 14th and Locust streets.
Before testimony even began, attorneys for the NLEC called the petition process unconstitutional, saying the statute outlining the process is vague. Attorney Todd Lubben also argued that shutting down NLEC would violate Rev. Rice's ability to openly practice his religion.
Nearly all of the day's testimony came from Lt. Dan Zarrick, who heads the downtown bike unit for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and has been assigned to the area for 11 years.
"Can you relate to the board some of the more disturbing things you observed?" the attorney for the petitioners, Elkin Kistner, asked Zarrick.
"Things that come directly to mind were the rats in very close proximity to the children," Zarrick answered. "I would see fights occur. I observed drug transactions. The children, obviously, is what comes to the forefront, them being neglected. We saw some individuals who were preying on the individuals in front of the building. I one time did observe a sex-for-drugs transaction."
Zarrick also said he had knowledge that registered sex offenders often stayed for long periods of time at NLEC, which is close to a park, churches, a school and the Central branch of the St. Louis Public Library.
Under cross-examination, Zarrick admitted that he did not know how many of the offenders still spent time living at NLEC. He said that while he knew of at least two loft dwellers who made the decision to move because of problems at NLEC, downtown's population had indeed increased.
And he admitted that he and other police officers will drop the homeless off at the NLEC, and make those sleeping in city parks aware of its services.
"If you believe it's a detriment to the neighborhood, why would you recommend New Life," Lubben, the center's attorney, asked. Zarrick responded that the current operation needs to be changed.
Supporters of the NLEC and Rev. Rice waited several hours to make comments after Zarrick concluded his testimony, though their statements will not be part of the official record.
Bessie Brown, who runs a prison ministry in the city jails, urged the board to remember that closing the NLEC would hurt more than just the people who stay there.
"You’re hurting people who are having a hard time paying their electric and their gas, because Rev.Rice’s company, that’s what they do, they help the general public with their problems also," she said.
The hearing will resume a week from Tuesday. A majority of the board must vote to revoke the permit. Bill Siedhoff, the city's human services director, has recused himself from the hearing.
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