Homeless Holy Wars

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

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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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

The firm spoke with St. Louis Department of Health supervisor Rich Robinson, who said the shelter has "occasional problems with rodents and general cleanliness that are common with food-service establishments in the downtown area." Nonetheless, Robinson reports that center personnel "work hard and do a good job of maintaining sanitary conditions."

"The City of St. Louis Building Inspection Department has no outstanding building safety violations on record for the Locust Street shelter," the environmental questionnaire states.

Troth notes that the property will revert back to the federal government if the shelter isn't maintained.

The DHHS still has to make a decision on Rice's application. According to the law, they have 25 days to make a determination on the completed application. But so far, the government has been firing back with more questions, many of the same ones that Breckenridge raises.

In a February 4 telephone call, DHHS informed New Life that they want more assurances of the ministry's financial capability as well as more detailed information on space usage.

Says a defiant Larry Rice, "They would like us to just get so frustrated that we give up. When I get irritated, it just causes more resolve to fight that much harder. They can try to intimidate all they want. Thank God we have the judicial branch."

Rice sits in his office behind a large, slightly banged-up brown desk. There's worn brown carpet on the floor, two green leather chairs that were stylish about 40 years ago and a wall filled with plaques that applaud his good works. In front of him is a pile of mail.

Some have written Rice about his decision to drop Joyce Meyer Ministries from his television station. Meyer is well known for her lavish lifestyle and claims that she's rich because God wanted her to be wealthy. Even though the decision cost New Life between $35,000 and $45,000 a month in revenue, Rice felt he had no choice. Others send mail about his bid for the Abram Building.

One person writes: "I admire you for dropping Joyce Meyer; disagree with your stance on the Opera House, but keep up the pressure -- good work!" Enclosed is a check for $100.

Correction published 3/10/04: In the original version of this story, we misspelled the name of the building at the center of the squabble between Reverend Larry Rice and developer Donald Breckenridge. The above version reflects the corrected text.

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