Rice acknowledges that many of his "guests" have troubled pasts but downplays their threat to anyone other than themselves. "We serve a lot of hurting people," he says. As for the sex offenders, Rice considers three to be a surprisingly low number. "The fact is, anyone can use our address," he says. "Maybe they did stay here a night or two. Who knows? But the authorities can always come and look if they want."

Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett, whose 6th Ward encompasses Washington Avenue and the New Life shelter (view map), says the petition puts her in an awkward position. "I'm sensitive to the concerns of my constituents, but at the same time you have to ask: Where would these people go if the shelter is closed? Right now, the city doesn't have the resources to provide for them."

In 2005 Mayor Francis Slay launched a ten-year plan to eliminate chronic homelessness in St. Louis by providing permanent housing to the poor as well as creating four drop-in "safe havens." To date, only two of those drop-in shelters have opened, and neither provides beds. By comparison, Rice's shelter usually sleeps 100 people in the summer and double that in the winter.

It remains to be seen if the petition asking the city's Board of Public Service to strip Rice of his permits will work. "It looks like the ordinance is available to petitioners," says BPS president Marjorie Melton. "That said, no one has presented a similar petition in my five years here. I've talked to people in the office who've been here twenty years, it's the first they've heard of it."

Martello, though, is confident that the law — if not God — is on his side. "I've got no problems with my neighbors so long as they're following the rules," he says. "But that hasn't been the case with the Rev. Rice and the homeless, and soon we'll have a thousand people signing their names in agreement. When that happens, we'll be impossible to ignore."

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