Judge dismisses downtown shelter's lawsuit against city in light of new permit application
Updated Dec. 9 with city permit denial - St. Louis has denied a request from the New Life Evangelistic Center to be exempted from two city code requirements as it applies for a new occupancy permit for its homeless shelter. Those city codes forbid shelters from being within 500 feet of a school, and require them to get the written support of local business owners and residents.
New Life is operating on its original hotel permit for 32 beds, but its director Larry Rice says up to 325 people stay there overnight.
In a statement, city counselor Michael Garvin said New Life’s application was denied because it requested waivers that would allow it to continue business as usual. The city is trying to force the center to address safety concerns.
Original story: A federal judge Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by the New Life Evangelistic Center over the city’s attempts to reduce the number of people who stay overnight at its homeless shelter in downtown St. Louis.
New Life filed the suit after the St. Louis Board of Public Service declared the shelter a “detriment to the neighborhood” last December and voted to revoke its hotel permit, unless the facility complied with its original permit for 32 beds, or applied for a new permit. The shelter’s founder, Larry Rice, has admitted to housing as many as 250 people a night, and more in the winter. The suit claimed that because New Life operates the shelter as a church, the regulations violate its rights as a religious organization.
In his ruling, Judge John Ross found it wasn’t appropriate for the court to rule on the lawsuit because New Life has not yet exhausted all of its options to keep the shelter operating. The agency has already filed a new multi-use permit with the city. Ross did not prevent Rice from filing a similar lawsuit later if the permit application is denied.
Rice said the ruling "puts the city on notice," while NLEC attorney Todd Lubben said it puts the situation on hold.
"I think really what the judge said is, 'You are in the process of applying for this permit, and the lawsuit is out for now, and come back to me if the permit procedure isn’t proper,'" Lubben said. "Through this litigation New Life learned the proper permit it needed and the procedure for getting that, and since July New Life has been going forward on getting a new permit that should allow New Life to continue to house people in need.”
In its new permit application, the NLEC is asking for approval of 250 beds year-round and 325 in the winter months at its facility at 1411 Locust St., as well as an exception to city rules preventing a homeless shelter from operating near a church or a school.
City Counselor Winston Calvert said in a statement that Wednesday's ruling "confirms that NLEC is not immune to the City's laws and that it must comply with health and safety regulations."
"We hope NLEC will take this opportunity to work with the City," Calvert said. "It has the opportunity to update its services in a manner that better serves people who are homeless and be respectful of the downtown community."
The city and the NLEC have been able to work together better recently, Rice said in a press conference Wednesday. He said he no longer sees the city as "the ultimate problem," instead laying blame for the controversy with local businesses that he says are "constantly emailing the city and pressuring the city to get the homeless out of their neighborhood."
"We’ve had numerous meetings with city authorities who have taken the time to sit down with us," Rice said. "I sometimes feel like they are arbitrating."
Rice said the NLEC has been working to make the changes the city has requested and recently submitted an architect's proposal showing planned building improvements. The facility hopes to raise $750,000 in a capital campaign to comply with city requests, such as installing a sprinkler system, commercial-grade kitchen hoods and temperature control for all rooms.
It's also made changes to its background check policies, release times for shelter guests, and a "zero tolerance" policy for loitering, Rice said. It's added six security cameras outside its building and a case manager onsite five days a week.
Rice said NLEC would also be willing to join the city's Continuum of Care efforts to help the homeless population. He also noted that his facility has seen fewer men seeking shelter since the city added additional services this year, but said the number of women and children seeking help has risen.
But Rice said for the NLEC to be able to comply with all the city's regulations, he needs "to see barriers come down." He said that includes making inspectors more available to talk with the NLEC's architect and contractors, as well as getting approval from the city for an exemption to the rules regarding shelter proximity to churches and schools.
"We’re still waiting to see if we’re going to see that kind of cooperation," he said. "If not, (the permit process) is going to take a lot longer."
According to the judge's ruling Tuesday, neither the city nor New Life could "definitely state how long the entire application process would take."
Durrie Bouscaren provided the update to this article.