Fried Rice: Lucas Park residents are fed up with the Rev. Larry Rice and the homeless shelter he runs

Andy Martello reached his tipping point on the Fourth of July while walking his four-year-old son past downtown's Lucas Park. The boy wanted to stop and play on the jungle gym, but Martello, who last summer traded in his home in Ballwin for a Washington Avenue loft, didn't think it a good idea.

He wanted to explain that the park, with its homeless squatters and frequent police calls for public urination and intoxication, was no place for a child to play. Instead, Martello delivered a message he thought his son would better understand. "It's too dirty," he said.

When the boy asked his father to clean the park, Martello says he made a vow. "I'll clean it," he told his son. "But I can't do it today."

Andy Martello hopes his petition will clean up Washington Avenue and nearby Lucas Park.
Jennifer Silverberg
Andy Martello hopes his petition will clean up Washington Avenue and nearby Lucas Park.

A month later, Martello, a gruff, 35-year-old software engineer with an affinity for caffeine, cigarettes and "solving problems," says he's discovered a way to rid downtown of the homeless he believes are ruining his neighborhood and the park. The solution, he says, lies in a little-known city code that allows residents to ask the city's Board of Public Service to strip the permits of any "rooming house, boarding house, dormitory or hotel" that constitutes a detriment to the neighborhood.

In Martello's mind, it's as if the city code were written explicitly to deal with the Rev. Larry Rice and his New Life Evangelistic Center. The regulation labels as a "detriment" any institution whose occupants engage in loitering, littering, public drinking, public urination and lewd conduct — especially when that property is located near a park, playground, school or church.

"When I read through the code I was like 'check, check, check and check,'" gleams Martello, who is convinced that Rice's New Life occupants are responsible for much of the panhandling and public urination occurring downtown. "If the majority of residents within 500 feet of the shelter sign the petition," says Martello, "then hopefully we can get the political support we need to eminent-domain his ass."

Since he began distributing the petition last week, Martello has been joined by dozens of other downtown residents and business owners fed up with what they see as a growing problem. "We've all been frustrated for so long," notes Howard Wynder, a Washington University scientist who moved downtown three years ago. "The cops are great, but they can't do enough," says Wynder. "And the elected officials don't want to get involved because it's too politically treacherous."

"It definitely seems to be getting worse," adds fellow loft-dweller Steve Kelly. "I can't tell you how many times I've witnessed people urinating in the park or on the corner of buildings. I don't mean to be callous to these people's need, but the fact is no other place in town would tolerate this."

Patricia Clark, a surgeon whose loft overlooks Lucas Park, says the situation has her thinking about moving away. "I'm exactly the kind of person the city and developers marketed this area to," comments Clark. "I'm affluent. I'm independent. I bought into the whole 'let's revitalize the city' idea. And what do I get? I'm paying an extra $7,000 in taxes to live downtown and be awakened by drunks screaming 'motherfucker' at each other all day long."

Worse still, says Clark, are the weekends when outside church groups show up to feed the poor in Lucas Park. "It's like a tailgating party for the religious," she says. "They set up these feeding stations and don't clean up any of the litter. It serves as a magnet for the homeless. I've even seen Larry Rice on his television station telling people that there is an urgent need to come down and feed these people. That's not true! There are already organizations here that provide that service."

Rice says he doesn't tell anyone to feed the homeless in the park. At the same time, he won't discourage people from doing it either. "Part of the essence of Christianity is to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and provide clothing for the naked," he says.

As for the petition, the reverend says he was unaware of the effort until reached for comment by Riverfront Times. "Caring people don't move into a neighborhood and then circulate a petition to drive out the people who already live there," he states. "It reminds me of the treatment of the American Indian."

Moreover, Rice asserts that his shelter actually reduces the number of homeless on the street by providing them a place to sleep at night and daytime classes and workshops designed to "break the cycle of homelessness." But shelter residents who aren't enrolled in classes are asked to leave New Life during the day to look for work. Martello — and others — believe many of those people end up panhandling along Washington Avenue or congregating in Lucas Park.

Recently, Martello has learned that at least three sex offenders considered "non-compliant" with the Missouri State Highway Patrol give their address as 1411 Locust — or New Life Evangelistic Center. He recalls, too, how in February an occupant inside New Life stabbed another homeless man to death.

"They are a danger to the people he has staying in the shelter, and they're a danger to the neighborhood when these people leave during the day," asserts Martello.

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