The Rev. Larry Rice opened his emergency shelter at the New Life Evangelistic Center in 1976 with permission from the city to house 32 people. Back then, the area around his building at 1411 Locust was mostly factories and warehouses for St. Louis’ garment district.
Many of those buildings are now loft apartments with bars and restaurants on the first floor, and Rice admits to regularly sheltering as many as 300 people a night.
The almost inevitable clash of two worlds will continue today at City Hall. That’s where residents and business owners are asking the city’s Board of Public Service to strip Rice of the hotel permit that allows people to stay overnight at New Life.
Like a lot of St. Louis-area natives, Brad Waldrop’s first exposure to the New Life Evangelistic Center was through its TV station, Channel 24, which broadcasts religious programs and requests for donations. He learned more about New Life a decade later when he got involved in the downtown scene as a mortgage banker, property owner, developer and resident.
"And I started to see things first hand," he said. "People were coming and going from the facility, or camping on it, whether it's on the fire escape or in the rear, and committing crimes. At that point, I was completely overwhelmed with what I saw."
Waldrop could not get the cooperation of Larry Rice and other New Life staffers to address the drinking, littering, loitering and other problems. So he used the only method he thought he had left.
"Roominghouse or hotel detrimental to the neighborhood."
Chapter 11.72 of the St. Louis City Revised Code allows property owners around a "rooming house, boarding house, dormitory or hotel" to collect signatures asking the city's Board of Public Service to rule that it's a detriment to the neighborhood and revoke its operating license.
Waldrop and others started passing petitions in December, gathering a total of 138 signatures. That met the threshold needed to force a hearing.
Police officers testified about seeing numerous drug transactions and neglected children. They spoke about sex offenders residing at New Life, which is in close proximity to two schools, the Central Library, and Lucas Park. One officer told the board that New Life is consistently among the top places for calls for service.
"It's easy to blame those people that were already here," says Rice. "You had what you called 'urban pioneers.' Pioneers were infamous when they come into an area to run the Indians off. Friday and Saturday nights we do see problems, but I don’t see the problems on the part of the homeless. I see drunken people stumbling out of bars that urinate behind our building. But they don’t want to recognize that because there’s money in that."
The head of the men's shelter at New Life testified that most of the empty beer bottles he sees are left there by customers of the bars a block away on Washington Ave. And he said, as a trained sniper, he did not believe that the police could have seen what they saw.
Waldrop says he has nothing against the city's homeless population. He was on the board of a local day shelter that serves many clients from New Life, and even tried to house the homeless himself. But he says they're not well-served by Rice's programs.
"Maybe they’re not getting hurt for that long, but my opinion, whether they’re there for two days, two weeks or two months, they’re walking around kind of aimlessly, not being interacted with by a trained staff, and then they eventually find their way out, so I think that’s damaging to the people they’re serving," he said.
Rice admitted in testimony that he has no social workers or nurses on staff, but has some who volunteer their time. He said he doesn't want to duplicate services offered by other agencies.
On the streets around New Life, opinions about Rice’s work vary.
Keith Gray went through one of New Life’s longer-term programs, and says while he’s still homeless and looking for a job, it was a positive experience.
"He gave me an opportunity to be independent, and to cook my own food, and take care of me like I needed. And he also gave me emotional help, where I needed to get closer with God, so I had time for that," Gray said.
Listening in were Scott Barbour and his friend Vance. Both say the shelter is filthy, and belongings routinely get stolen. And they say they've never gotten more than "hard bologna sandwiches and hard doughnuts," as Vance put it.
"I think he should help people find a place to live, and he should be able to fix that place up," Barbour said.
"[Rice] gets donations," Vance chimed in. "I was sitting there last year for Christmas dinner and watched him get $40,000 donations, back-to-back. What’s he doing with all the money? He ain’t helping nobody."
Financial statements from 2012, available on the New Life website, show the organization finished that year with a $155,000 deficit in its general fund, but an overall balance of of more than $2.1 million.
Views from the outside
The city's human services director, Bill Siedhoff, would not talk about the petition against New Life. He serves on the Board of Public Service, but has recused himself from the hearings.
The Partnership for Downtown St. Louis is supporting the petition, citing the lack of "real commitment to engaging in best practices to aid the homeless, or to mitigating the impact of its failings on the neighborhood."
Other social service providers like the Very Rev. Mike Kinman of Christ Church Cathedral are watching the quasi-legal battle warily. Like it or not, he says, NLEC is providing a service that’s difficult to find elsewhere. Shutting it down could be a disaster.
"This is why St. Paul told Christians not to drag each other into court, because once the court happens, you stop thinking about how we can work together and start thinking about how we can beat the other side," he said.
Both Kinman and Waldrop say the city needs to explore spreading emergency shelters throughout the city, rather than concentrating them in downtown. It's not clear how much flexibility the board will have in addressing the petitioners' concerns. The ordinance appears to allow for conditions on a suspension or revocation of a permit.
Larry Rice says he’ll appeal any ruling that goes against him. New Life is a church, he says, and provides shelter as part of its Biblical mandate.
"We follow the Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus Christ, not Francis Slay or Ed Roth or anybody else," he said. "That creates a clash. We will then continue to move through the courts saying we don’t need a hotel permit."
New Life supporters plan one more day of testimony on Dec. 10 before both sides submit briefs to the board for consideration. There’s no deadline by which its members have to make a decision.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann