Updated April 1 after rally — The founder of New Life Evangelistic Center spent the final hours before his downtown St. Louis shelter closes leading rallies.
The Rev. Larry Rice is running for mayor of St. Louis and hopes that he can re-open his shelter if he wins Tuesday.
The city has been fighting to close New Life for years, saying it’s a detriment to the neighborhood.
“We’re here to organize, we’re here to mobilize. Before you leave today we need you to sign up to volunteer on Election Day,” said Rice, during a speech that included prayers in between condemnations of current Mayor Francis Slay and Democratic candidate Lyda Krewson, who is heavily favored to win Tuesday’s election.
Many of the 50 or so people attending Saturday’s rally were current or former residents, including Karen Wango. She said New Life took her and her three teenage children in three years ago.
“When you get into a situation where you feel like you are the only one in the situation, and you are around other people and you see how God changes other people’s lives, that builds your faith up,” Wango said. She credited New Life with giving her the support of a community of believers who knew what she was going through.
Wango plans to move in with her son when the shelter closes Sunday.
The city is opening two temporary shelters to take in people displaced by the closure.
But during Saturday’s rally, Rice reiterated his belief that those shelters won’t be enough.
“They tell the judge, ‘We’re going to take care of everybody.’ And they know in their hearts it’s a lie! And I believe that lie is going to come out in the public and we’re going to see that it’s nothing but a lie. And we’ll prove the lie. Like I said, if I have to, I’ll go out on the streets with the homeless,” Rice said.
As evidence, Rice and his supporters said people trying to use the city’s temporary shelters are being turned away.
The city’s human services director, Eddie Roth, said Friday that people are being turned away because the city is waiting to open those shelters until New Life closes Sunday evening.
Original story from March 31 — After more than 40 years operating a homeless shelter at 1411 Locust St. in downtown St. Louis, the founder of New Life Evangelistic Center appears to be bowing to legal pressure and closing up shop — at least temporarily.
A Circuit Court judge on Thursday denied New Life’s request to stay open and ordered the shelter to close by April 1 in compliance with a cease and desist notice from the city. New Life founder, the Rev. Larry Rice, confirmed he plans to close the shelter around 5 p.m. on Sunday.
“We just see this kind of, though, as an interruption in service,” Rice said. “We’re still moving ahead on the legal aspects. We have not lost at all. We haven’t gone into the state courts yet, or the federal courts, where I believe we’re definitely going to win.”
St. Louis revoked New Life’s building permit in 2015 after declaring the shelter was a detriment to the neighborhood. New Life is appealing that ruling to the St. Louis Circuit Court.
The city’s Human Services Department director, Eddie Roth, said New Life is a public health hazard and doesn’t provide reliable shelter.
“The policies at New Life Evangelistic Center cast a wide net across the region and beyond saying that they were a walk-in shelter. But the reality is that you could be inside for 15 days, but then they put you out on the street for 30 days,” Roth said. “The closing of New Life Evangelistic Center gives this community a chance to directly confront this unsheltered population and actually help them.”
The city is opening two temporary shelters Sunday to house the people currently at New Life: one for women at the city’s rec center at 1410 S. Tucker Blvd., and another for men at the Forestry Division's Weed Control Section, 1415 N. 13th St.
Roth said each shelter will have enough space for 75 people, with a goal of placing at least half in other housing within 90 days.
“The object of both these shelters is that they will be temporary, time-limited,” Roth said. “And the object will be to move as many people as quickly as we can directly into housing or our regular shelter system.”
Two legal advocacy groups, Saint Louis University Law Clinic and ArchCity Defenders, sued the city Friday alleging that the men’s shelter is an uninhabitable garage without drinking water or showers.
The judge denied their request for an immediate response, allowing the city to use the Forestry Division building at least through Wednesday, when the judge will hear the case.
Roth said the temporary shelter is within 500 feet of the showers and other facilities at the Biddle center.
Rice, who is running as an independent candidate for mayor in the April 4th election, said he is encouraging people staying at New Life to go to the city’s shelters, but he doesn’t believe the city will be able to take care of them.
“I’m going to be moving out onto the streets when we shut down because I don’t know where they’re going to go,” Rice said. “We’re going to be sleeping out there with them. On election night, as a candidate for mayor, I’ll be out among the homeless.”
Both Roth and the mayor’s spokeswoman, Maggie Crane, said the city has more than enough shelter space for the people currently staying at New Life, based on the estimates given in court.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that Larry Rice entices people from out of state to come to St. Louis,” Crane said. “We have enough to serve those we believe are staying at New Life, but probably not enough to service an influx from out of state.”
Roth said if people decide to camp out on the streets instead of taking advantage of the temporary shelters, the city will respond the same way as they have in the past.
“The outdoor encampments are not safe. Tents are a fire hazard,” Roth said. “When one starts to emerge, we send the building division out. We condemn the tents for occupancy; we give people a reasonable time to move on. We give them options to come in and receive services, and then we, at the appointed date, make sure that the site is cleared.”
Roth characterized Rice’s plan to sleep outside alongside people experiencing homelessness as a political stunt and said it would be up to police to decide how to handle it.
“I think the history of city of St. Louis in these matters is one of forbearance and tolerance, especially when it comes to any kind of political speech,” Roth added.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.