Homeless Holy Wars

The defiant Reverend Larry Rice infuriates big developers and city leaders over a proposed shelter in a downtown federal building

 Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

On a frigid February afternoon, women and children file into a vast, open room at the New Life Evangelistic Center's homeless shelter, each carrying plastic grocery bags filled with personal belongings. Hats, gloves and thick winter coats are peeled off of toddlers squirming in strollers. Young boys and girls play tag near a large wooden cross. Some are tempted to pound the keys on an out-of-tune upright piano.

Jerad, a thirteen-year-old boy with a shy smile, sits cross-legged on the floor, hunched over his homework. His assignment from the St. Louis public school he attends is to describe his dream house in a five-paragraph essay.

Before the sun rises, Jerad stands outside New Life's 
shelter on Locust, waiting for the taxi that takes him to 
school.
Jennifer Silverberg
Before the sun rises, Jerad stands outside New Life's shelter on Locust, waiting for the taxi that takes him to school.
In 2006 the L. Douglas Abram Federal Building will be 
up for grabs, and federal law says it must be offered to 
homeless providers first.
Jennifer Silverberg
In 2006 the L. Douglas Abram Federal Building will be up for grabs, and federal law says it must be offered to homeless providers first.

His teacher doesn't know that Jerad has no home, let alone a dream home. In order to complete the assignment, he used his school's computer to download photos from the Internet.

The front of this sprawling make-believe house is covered with the light brick that's popular in suburban developments. In his house, there will be a game room with a large pool table and video games, a computer room, three master bedrooms and a swimming pool.

"This is my basketball court, my track -- and my bar," Jerad says. His mother, Linda, scowls slightly at the mention of a bar.

Jerad, his ten-year-old sister and Linda have been homeless for just over three months. Linda remembers what it was like when she entered a homeless shelter after the apartment she was planning to move into burned down.

She thought she'd be the only mother with children, but she was wrong. "There were so many kids."

Linda and her family aren't alone. They represent a growing army of refugees, of families -- women and children, mainly -- who have found themselves in a desperate search for shelter. These are the people who the Reverend Larry Rice points to in justifying his dogged pursuit of the L. Douglas Abram Federal Building in downtown St. Louis.

The federal government plans to vacate the building in 2006, and by taking advantage of a federal law, Rice's New Life Evangelistic Center Inc. wants to turn it into a homeless shelter capable of serving between 525 and 1000 people.

However, Kiel Opera House developer Donald Breckenridge has vastly different plans for that space, and none of them have to do with providing a downtown sanctuary for the homeless.

Breckenridge wants to buy the Abram building and turn it into a parking garage for the long-shuttered Kiel Opera House next door. Without the parking garage, he says, the venerable opera house will not reopen. The development deal, he explains, involves two leases, one of which is with music-industry giant Clear Channel, which plans to rent office space in the Kiel. The Clear Channel lease demands 1500 parking spaces within two blocks of the site. The other lease is with Savvis Center and requires an additional 1500 additional parking spaces.

"The Abram Building becomes a necessity for us, because people going to the theater -- especially ladies in a dress and heels -- they just won't walk any further than that," Breckenridge says.

That threat has Kiel supporters, Mayor Francis Slay, comptroller Darlene Green and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board, lined up to oppose Rice.

But this is a fight Rice is likely to win. The reverend has more than the Bible on his side -- he's got the law as well, in the form of the Stewart B. McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. With few exceptions, the McKinney Act forces the federal government to give first preference in the lease or sale of property to organizations that help the homeless.

Kiel developer Breckenridge conceded to the Riverfront Times last week that if Rice follows through with his application for the federal building, little can be done to stop him.

"I think that the law is pretty specific," Breckenridge admits. "For the last 60 days, we haven't done anything. We are just waiting for the application to be processed and a determination to be made. If, in fact, Larry Rice prevails, it is over."

Ed Golterman, the Kiel Opera House crusader, says that is "a crock of shit."

"What it looks like to me is that people still don't want Kiel reopened and they've found another wedge -- they find one every year."

Golterman thinks he's come up with four alternatives. He believes Kiel Center Partners and St. Louis Blues owner Bill Laurie should give Rice $20 million to buy a different building, convert a planned boutique hotel on 14th Street into a parking garage, dedicate all existing downtown parking to opera patrons or allow patrons to park in the AG Edwards and Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District parking lots near Jefferson and Market and provide shuttles to the Kiel. But no one seems at all keen on Golterman's ideas.

Instead, Breckenridge's best bet is to convince Rice to back down. When the Salvation Army said it was interested in the Abram Building, he picked up the phone and convinced them to reconsider. He says he's called Rice seven times to try to convince him to train his sights on another building -- but Rice won't take his calls, Breckenridge complains.

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