A handful of homeless people milled about in the shade of a big green and white tent in suburban St. Louis County.
The massive canopy represents the latest in a string of attempts by Rev. Larry Rice of the New Life Evangelistic Center to set up a camp for the homeless.
St. Louis County officials and police were on hand Saturday morning while Rice began setting up the camp in a vacant lot on Lada Avenue.
Officials told Rice that he did not file the proper paperwork to have a portable toilet, and that he could not have multiple tents.
Undeterred, Rice said he would take the men to nearby gas stations and that neighbors offered up their own restrooms for women until he could meet county ordinances.
Patricia Williams, special projects manager for St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, said they’re willing to work with Rice and that they were there to ensure the camp was in accord with county ordinances.
“If they are in tents, and it is a camp or an area that has access to sanitation and it is safe in terms of the residents who are there are safe, the residents who live here are safe, then, I see no problem with that,” Rice said.
County officials have done everything they can to avoid developing a confrontational relationship with Rice, and they acknowledge that homelessness is a serious problem in the county and the rest of the region, Williams said.
Rice said he plans for a number of homeless "activities" throughout the metro area in October, including the Belleville, Alton and Collinsville area as well as Franklin and Jefferson counties.
“If we don’t do this in the month of October, we’re going to be in the cold winter months and people are going to be freezing to death,” Rice said. “They’re going to be suffering, they’re going to be burning down the buildings to stay warm. There has to be alternatives, we have to start appealing to our churches to start opening their doors to help the hurting and the homeless. And we have to appeal to municipalities to stop outlawing homelessness and making it a crime.”
He has met with officials in the Metro East and he’s trying to organize a forum to discuss issues surrounding homelessness, Rice said.
Rice said there is a part of the homeless population that will not go to shelters, and that there should be small plots of land set aside where they can live safely.
He pointed to Dignity Village, a homeless camp in Portland, Oregon, as a possible model for his efforts in St. Louis region.