The city’s Board of Building Appeals hammered down its rejection of New Life Evangelistic Center in a lengthy order this week in which the board claimed the former shelter fell short of multiple safety measures — including fire safety.
In July, the board sided with concerned neighbors who appealed the city Building Division’s permit for New Life to renovate its space at 1411 Locust Street in Downtown West.
Numerous building code violations, overcrowding and complaints from neighbors led the city to shut down the shelter in 2017. But this year, New Life Evangelistic Center founder Rev. Larry Rice tried to reopen the shelter as a church complete with a food pantry, stores of free supplies and offices. Rice and his son, Chris Rice, insisted New Life would not operate as a shelter as it did before.
Yet concerned downtown residents thought they saw right through the plan. And so did members of the Building Appeals board, who called the shelter an “attractive nuisance” and largely agreed New Life would continue to house St. Louis’ homeless residents as it did before. All six voted in favor of the appeal to block the building’s reopening.
In a 17-page order this week, the board argued they had good reason to.
In addition to the “myriad of well-documented problems” on site during its time as a shelter, the board wrote that New Life failed to address fire safety concerns in a two-story atrium in the lobby of the building.
The board concluded that New Life’s testimony on its “true” future plans for the space was “not credible.” Within days of New Life receiving its building permit, the board claimed New Life sent out a fundraising letter that revealed its true plans.
Earlier this year, Larry and Chris Rice told the board and reporters they planned to keep New Life open strictly during the daytime — but they would not house the homeless.
Yet within days of receiving approval for a building permit in February 2022, according to the board, New Life sent out a solicitation that read: “The severe cold that the greater St. Louis area has experienced this year clearly shows how critical it is that New Life Evangelistic Center at 1411 Locust is opened as a day center for the homeless.”
The board concluded that New Life actually wanted to operate a homeless shelter, even while seeking to avoid code provisions reserved for shelters.
“Based on NLEC’s descriptions, the board finds that what NLEC proposes functions almost exclusively to serve and shelter the homeless,” the order reads.
In addition, there were deficiencies in New Life’s mechanical, electrical, plumbing and engineering systems that were “too extensive to document,” the board wrote. An engineer observed exposed electrical wiring and areas of poor ventilation.
New Life’s closure in 2017 marked the loss of the only low-barrier shelter in the city. Such easy access to shelter beds for the city’s neediest residents are still in low supply today, says unhoused advocate Syd Hajicek, who opposed New Life’s closure.
“Almost every single homeless person I talk to says they wish [Larry Rice] was still open,” Hajicek says. “It was a great resource for them to just get inside.”
A New Life spokesperson did not return a call from the RFT by press time. We'll update this story if we hear back.
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