Homeless Holy Wars

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

According to Troth, the act contains two provisions that would knock Rice out of the running. First, the government could award the building to a competing homeless shelter. But in the fight over the Abram Building, Rice is competing in a wide-open field. Second, the Department of Health and Human Services could determine that the St. Louis area doesn't need any more homeless shelters -- but it does. Demand vastly outnumbers supply.


In St. Louis, homelessness isn't limited to alcoholics, the mentally ill or the man with the thick beard and matted hair standing at the top of the exit ramp of Highway 40 and Grand Boulevard, holding a cardboard sign that says "Viet Nam Veteran." The most abundant victims of homelessness are women and children.

Late at night, women seek out the third floor bathroom 
to talk in private. In the morning, it is filled with mothers 
getting their kids ready for school.
Jennifer Silverberg
Late at night, women seek out the third floor bathroom to talk in private. In the morning, it is filled with mothers getting their kids ready for school.
The Worship Room on the first floor of New Life's 
headquarters serves both as Rice's television studio 
backdrop and as the place where children take their 
afternoon naps.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Worship Room on the first floor of New Life's headquarters serves both as Rice's television studio backdrop and as the place where children take their afternoon naps.

Eighty-five percent of the phone calls to the Housing Resource Center, a city- and county-funded Catholic Charities agency that is the primary clearinghouse for emergency assistance requests, are from women and children. The average age of a homeless adult is 35; the average age of a homeless child is seven. About eight out of every ten are African-American.

In the St. Louis metropolitan area, the rate of homelessness increased by nearly 70 percent between 1998 and 2002, according to "Homelessness in Missouri: The Rising Tide," a 2002 report by the Missouri Association of Social Welfare.

Katrina Knight, the executive director of the Housing Resource Center, says in the report, "The shortage of decent, affordable housing is epidemic in St. Louis."

And Joe Squillace, a longtime housing and homelessness advocate who is now the chief operating officer of Positive Family Enterprises Inc., says, "The reality is that we have a crisis on our hands with homelessness and the lack of housing."

He calls the distribution of Section 8 vouchers for market-rate apartments a failure in St. Louis, and says that the law does nothing to force apartment owners to accept the vouchers. Homelessness is on the rise, low-income units are becoming increasingly difficult to find, and St. Louis shelters must turn people away.

Linda, Jerad's mother, is a school bus driver who quit after arriving at the shelter because she didn't want to leave her kids alone in a strange place to fend for themselves. Every day, she sets out to find a job with hours from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and an apartment she can afford.

Tracy is a recovering drug addict whose six-year-old son is in foster care. Each day, she goes to St. Patrick's Center to complete classes to stay clean and to try to regain custody of her son.

Diane spends most of the night passed out underneath her coat, while another woman says she's preparing a talk to deliver to the psychological community about the problem of husbands hiring cops to knock off their wives.

There's a 25-year-old woman with four children who cries for hours because the father of her four kids left her for another woman.

An eight-and-a-half-months pregnant Somali woman who speaks elegant English demurs when asked why she's sought refuge in a homeless shelter. She carts around a car seat, luggage, crayons and coloring books for her two young daughters.

There's an older woman who walks with a limp after spending the day cleaning hotel rooms downtown and Christina, an eighteen-year-old who is elated that she just landed a job working at Panda Express.

Rice wants to place these women, children and families in the Abram Building. But Breckenridge, who repeatedly stresses that he isn't opposed to homeless shelters, says that downtown doesn't need another one.

"We have enough fear of coming downtown, of people being afraid to walk alone, and I just think that a thousand people looking for help can make that situation much more difficult," Breckenridge says.

According to the application that New Life filed in December, the facility would initially provide bed space for approximately 525 people. And it would provide space rent-free to other organizations that provided needed services, such as job training and GED courses.

New Life estimated that it would cost approximately $1.2 million per year to operate the facility and that they have $70,000 in a reserve fund and a letter of credit for $3 million. The minstry also plans to conduct a fundraising campaign.

Rice can also apply for a separate pot of funds for the operation under the McKinney Act.

Breckenridge thinks Rice's estimates are too low, even though he based them on the current utility and maintenance costs for the building. And he doesn't see how New Life will be able to shoulder the financial burdens of such a large building. But Troth doesn't share that view. While the Department of Housing and Human Services will take into account Rice's financial capabilities, Troth contends that New Life is "more financially capable than almost any other homeless provider in the country; their assets are significant."

Another frequently raised issue is whether Rice will maintain the building. Critics suggest Rice can't even meet building and fire codes at the Locust location and won't be able to handle the Abram Building.

At New Life's shelter on Locust, there's peeling paint, water-stained walls and leaking water from a third-floor toilet. Still, an environmental questionnaire completed by the engineering consulting firm Shannon & Wilson states that the Locust building is not a health and safety threat.

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