Homeless Holy Wars

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

"If I could ever talk to Larry Rice, I would be very, very willing to help to try and find a facility, but I haven't been able to communicate with him," Breckenridge says.

But Rice won't budge.

"People have such short memories," Rice says, referring to the deal that closed the Kiel Opera House and built the Savvis Center.

The Reverend Larry Rice defiantly refuses to give up 
his bid for the Abram Building. "They would like us to 
get so frustrated that we give up. When I get irritated it 
just causes more resolve to fight that much harder."
Jennifer Silverberg
The Reverend Larry Rice defiantly refuses to give up his bid for the Abram Building. "They would like us to get so frustrated that we give up. When I get irritated it just causes more resolve to fight that much harder."
About twenty women and children will spend the night 
sleeping on air mattresses in this room on the Locust 
building's third floor.
Jennifer Silverberg
About twenty women and children will spend the night sleeping on air mattresses in this room on the Locust building's third floor.

In that agreement, the city spent $35 million to demolish the old Kiel auditorium, build a parking garage and tear down the historic Children's Building. In return, the Kiel Center Partners told the public they'd renovate the Kiel Opera House and build a new arena. But after spending $2.5 million on renovations, the Kiel Partners said they'd fulfilled their legal responsibilities. The opera house was left with no running water on the top three floors and steam heat working at only 40 percent capacity -- and the building hasn't been reopened since it was shuttered in 1991 to make way for the Savvis Center construction.

"They promised they'd fix up the opera house and they never did a thing on it," Rice says. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."


At first blush, 55-year-old Larry Rice is easy to dismiss as a fast-talking evangelical minister from south Texas who appears on television wearing the sport coats he's fished out of New Life's donated clothes bin. But he's also the indefatigable chief executive officer of New Life Evangelistic Center, a sprawling nonprofit organization that provides a variety of services to the homeless, and a strong-willed visionary prepared to steamroll over anything that gets in his way. When the city of Springfield recently told him that he couldn't open up a homeless shelter because it was too close to another one, Rice opened it anyway. He called it a 24-hour church.

Rice started working with the homeless in 1971, when he was in his early twenties. Over the course of 30 years, he's built an empire that spans four states. The first building Rice purchased, which still serves as New Life's headquarters, is at 1411 Locust in downtown St. Louis. New Life now includes two women's shelters in the city of St. Louis and one in St. Louis County. There are also sixteen shelters in Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois and Kansas, and nineteen "free stores," which consist of rows of folding tables piled high with donated clothes, shoes and household items.

In New Bloomfield, Missouri, New Life opened a renewable energy training site. Homeless men are offered a chance to learn how to construct geothermal dome houses. They're taught how to make housing insulation from waste paper and to create bio-diesel fuel from vegetable oil.

Through New Life's network of radio and television stations, Larry Rice has become a household name. In 1982, New Life obtained its first television station license for KNLC in St. Louis (currently channel 24), and now the network includes nineteen AM and FM radio stations, two full-service television stations, two HDTV stations and seven low-power television stations.

There have also been unsuccessful runs for governor and lieutenant governor. Rice wanted to join the political ranks, yet he doesn't trust politicians. His harshest criticism is reserved for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and former St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl.

"The war on poverty under those two mayors has become more a war on the impoverished," Rice says.

He blames Schoemehl for thwarting a proposal he made back in the 1980s to use St. Louis City Hospital to shelter the homeless. Rice blasts the current administration for "aggressive programs for upper-income people in the form of tax abatements," which he claims shift money away from creating low-income housing.

Because of that distrust, Rice says, he's built the New Life ministry without accepting government funding.

"It comes back to control. If they can control us, and we take their money, then when they want you to move out, they pull the money out from under you and tell you to go somewhere else."

But when the federal government sent a notice to homeless providers to let them know that the Abram Federal Building was up for grabs and that they were at the top of the list as potential tenants or outright owners, Rice set aside his concerns about government programs.

Providers for the homeless get first dibs because of the McKinney-Vento Act. Signed into law by President Reagan in 1987, the act requires the federal government to offer empty property suitable for overnight shelter to those who work with the homeless. The Department of Health and Human Services is in charge of administering the law, and the federal courts maintain they won't tolerate efforts to ignore it.

In 1988, a federal district court judge in Washington, D.C., issued a preliminary injunction after finding that "[p]itifully few of the numerous unused federal properties are being evaluated for their suitability to assist the homeless. Those that are found suitable are not being made available to homeless providers."

In 1993, the court ordered the government to notify providers that technical assistance is available from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty if application problems arose.

Rebecca Troth, an attorney with the NLCHP, is working with New Life on its application. When asked if the law permits the government to choose a parking garage over a homeless shelter, Troth laughs and says no.

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