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St. Louis rules Larry Rice's homeless shelter a nuisance

St. Louis rules Larry Rice's homeless shelter a nuisance

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UPDATED at 2:15 p.m. with ruling.

ST. LOUIS • A city board ruled Tuesday that Rev. Larry Rice's homeless shelter downtown is a nuisance and will be closed effective May 12, 2015, unless he complies with city terms.

Rice’s occupancy permit allows him to have a maximum of 32 beds. Many nights, Rice allows upwards of 300 people to stay in the shelter.

The city’s Board of Public Service has conducted more than a year of hearings on a petition to revoke Rice’s hotel license, which has allowed him to operate his New Life Evangelistic Center as a homeless shelter. It culminated Tuesday in a final decision just two days before Christmas.

A group of downtown residents, led by developer Brad Waldrop, brought the matter before the board in 2013, alleging that the shelter is a drag on downtown and prevents investment in the heart of the city. A petition alleges that the shelter is “being operated in such manner as to constitute a detriment to its neighborhood.” The petition cites loitering; littering; drinking in public; lewd and indecent conduct in and around the shelter; drug use and sales; and intimidating behavior and noise.

The New Life Evangelistic Center, the headquarters of Rice’s multimillion-dollar religious and homeless operation, has been a fixture in downtown St. Louis since it opened in 1976. The last decade has seen a wave of public and private investment in the area around the shelter at 1411 Locust Street, creating a clash between wealth and poverty. Today, the dusty shelter sits near the edgy membership-only bar and restaurant Blood & Sand, the redeveloped Washington Avenue loft district and the $70 million restored Central Library.

An influx of new residents and young professionals has spurred a debate over how Rice operates the shelter and cares for New Life’s building.

A St. Louis police officer testified last year that homeless people drawn to the area by Rice’s shelter — some doing drug deals outside of it, others performing sex acts — take up a majority of his time. He accused Rice of being unwilling to compromise and work with city officials like other homeless service organizations.

In May 2014, a homeless man allegedly stabbed another homeless man near the corner of the Central Library at 13th Street and Olive Street.

Rice appeared before the board and said he is responsible only for what happens in his building, but he also said the portrayals of the people outside of his door are “not the homeless that I know.” He maintained he is doing the city a service by operating downtown’s only walk-in shelter.

In October, the board delayed a decision on the matter after St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay urged Rice and his opponents to negotiate a compromise. Those talks failed. The timing of the board’s decision is largely unavoidable as one of its members, who has heard more than a year of arguments, will soon retire.

“We tried to negotiate,” Rice said. “But I have to remain true to my mission.”

Over the years, New Life has developed significant financial resources to fight court battles. In 2009, court documents estimated New Life has assets between $40 million and $50 million, including radio and television stations. In 2008, the center reported receiving more than $1.8 million in cash contributions.

Rice said he would appeal the ruling at the state and federal levels.

"We are a church. We follow the mandates of scripture. The mandates of Jesus Christ, not Francis Slay," he said.

Waldrop, the developer leading the opposition, said the chief problem comes down to Rice being allowed to “break the law.”

“If he wanted to truly cooperate, he would talk about the numbers, and he doesn’t want to talk about that,” Waldrop said. “Get to know 30 people and help them, not 300.”

Rice responded: “I’m thinking of this not as numbers but as individual faces.”

Eddie Roth, the city’s incoming human services director, said last week that the city will be prepared for whatever the board decides.

“Whatever the outcome, we will get better,” Roth said. “All actors will get better and become better neighbors and relate to the broader community.”

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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