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Protesters march to save homeless shelter

Tears roll down the face of Cori Bush, who marches with protesters voicing opposition to the planned city closure of Rev. Larry Rice's New Life Evangelistic Center, a shelter for the homeless, on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. "We are fighting our own mayor," said Bush. "When he says there's space other places, we're the ones knocking on doors to see there is none." A city appeals board has given Rice until April 1 to cease operations. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Let’s say you’re a college student with a heart.

You go to St. Louis University. You want to do something to help the homeless.

So you head downtown to the New Life Evangelistic Center run by the Rev. Larry Rice.

Watch out for the white lady with the BB gun. She might shoot you in the ass.

That’s what Lauralyn Parmalee told a group of about 30 people — including Mayor Francis Slay — in an email blast last week. Parmalee lives in a downtown loft on 15th and Locust streets, across the street from Rice’s homeless shelter, which the city is trying to close for multiple permit violations. For more than a year now Parmalee’s has been among various voices pushing the city to shut Rice’s shelter. Sometimes, her frustration — and, I think, lack of empathy — gets the best of her:

“I have a BB gun and I am going to go out and start shooting these people in the ass if the above is not accomplished,” she wrote after demanding that the city padlock New Life and clean up the street. “So, go ahead and arrest me. Jail will be quieter than here.”

Parmalee followed up the email with this observation:

“I just looked out the window and there is a van full of students from St. Louis University mixing with ‘the crowd.’ Maybe I should shoot them, too.”

Shooting the homeless, and the people who help them, will solve nothing.

Neither will simply shutting down Rice’s shelter. The city has ordered him to close by April 1, but Rice filed suit Friday challenging that deadline.

The history of homelessness in St. Louis — particularly since Rice has been involved — is that the problem gets moved around from place to place, while public officials fail to do the one thing sure to help the problem the most: invest in housing opportunities for low-income people at risk of homelessness.

For the record, Parmalee tells me she doesn’t actually own a BB gun. But she doesn’t exactly apologize for her use of the homeless as pawns in a back-and-forth game of over-the-top rhetoric involving Rice, who, coincidentally, is running for mayor, again.

“If I have to say something provocative to make a point, obviously I am willing to stick my neck out and take the heat,” Parmalee told me.

It’s almost as if she and Rice are reading from the same playbook.

Parmalee is right that the city’s efforts to keep the area around New Life clean and safe are inconsistent. It took dozens of homeless men and women collapsing from taking bad hits of K2 before police stepped up enforcement and pushed back some of the drug dealers preying on those who loiter outside New Life. The streets around Rice’s center were quieter during some of the coldest winter days, but as unseasonably warm February temperatures have hit, the numbers of men and women camping out on the sidewalk on Locust Street have skyrocketed.

If there were an easy solution, the city long ago would have adopted it. But Rice fills a need. Stemming the tide of that human need for shelter needs to be the region’s focus. And on that front, there is progress.

Members of the various Continuum of Care organizations in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County, have been talking about how other homeless providers can fill the needs of the region’s homeless if Rice’s shelter closes.

City officials are working on an emergency plan that will cost in the range of $1 million to provide emergency shelter for up to 75 men and 75 women, likely enough beds to cover the amount of people regularly spending the night at New Life.

Coming soon to a neighborhood near you: A fight to stop the opening of the emergency shelters that will be absolutely necessary if the city is ever successful in shutting down Rice’s downtown shelter.

This is the harsh reality facing city leaders:

Those shelters, and the human beings who sometimes live there, will have to go somewhere.

Let’s hope the new neighbors won’t own any BB guns.

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