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As Downtown St. Louis Weighs Its Homeless Problem, All Eyes Are on Larry Rice 

click to enlarge Rev. Larry Rice looks out the front door of the New Life Evangelistic Center as homeless men wait in line for potential beds for the night on November 14.

PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE

Rev. Larry Rice looks out the front door of the New Life Evangelistic Center as homeless men wait in line for potential beds for the night on November 14.

People started to drop during the first weekend in November.

Staggering, nearly passed out on their feet, they crashed to the sidewalks in a drab stretch of St. Louis' downtown. The stricken vomited, and some shook in the grip of seizures. Others slipped into zombie-like states of near catatonia. One man, unable to break his own fall, plunged face-first into the concrete and bashed out his front teeth.

A bad strain of synthetic marijuana, or K2, was just beginning to hit the city. Sold for $1 or $2 per joint, it swept through St. Louis' homeless community, with the primary concentration of overdoses striking sidewalk encampments that bookend the towering shelter at New Life Evangelistic Center in the 1400 block of Locust Street.

Nearly overnight, emergency calls began to flood city dispatch lines.

"You would be at one call, and someone would walk up and tell you there's another person down over there," St. Louis Fire Department Captain Garon Mosby says. "We were getting multiple overdoses — five, seven at a time."

Police Chief Sam Dotson was driving past during one of the early days of the outbreak when he spotted a half-dozen people down "in convulsions and foaming at the mouth" and stopped to help. It wasn't long before the police and fire departments decided to shorten response times by posting up on Locust and waiting for the next OD. They were soon joined by TV trucks and news reporters. By the middle of the week, the canyon-like strip of the old garment district was lit with the strobes of red and blue lights and camera flashes.

And still people were going down. The fire department's Bureau of Emergency Medical Services usually handles about 70 overdoses in a typical month. During the first week of the bad synthetic marijuana epidemic, the bureau ran 158 calls for K2 alone. The surge of emergency summonses finally began to break after five or six days, but the fire department's EMS still logged another 51 calls during the first five days of the second week.

None was fatal, but the frightening spate of overdoses left a lasting impression. This brand of K2 — some were calling it Tunechi, a reference to the rapper Lil Wayne, who has a history of seizures — caused dozens of people to overheat, seize and hallucinate. A majority became combative in their incoherence, wrestling with the very people who'd come to help them, authorities say.

"I know you've seen the TV show The Walking Dead," Mosby says. "Some of them were truly like that."

The unsettling episode was set against the backdrop of a renewed controversy surrounding New Life. The shelter's founder, the Rev. Larry Rice, saw the sudden onslaught of overdoses as both a tragedy on the human level and, in a broader context, a consequence of what he suspects is a conspiracy to undercut his life's work. Rice, a tall man with a boyish face even at age 67, has been fighting a years-long battle against the city and his neighbors to keep the shelter open.

Just as the K2 outbreak was beginning to hit, on November 9, the St. Louis building commissioner issued New Life a cease-and-desist order that gives Rice 30 days to close the shelter. Brad Waldrop, a longtime critic of Rice, filed a nuisance lawsuit against New Life a week later, alleging the pastor intentionally attracts people who need serious help to his doorstep and then turns his back as they wreak havoc on the neighborhood.

The suit cites the K2 overdoses as sparking an "unprecedented level of chaos and panic in the community," and lays the blame on the lawless atmosphere surrounding New Life.

In response, Rice points out the encampments are actually in front of the Waldrops' parking lots, largely comprising people who either won't come into New Life or have been barred for breaking the rules. He claims as many as half of the people hanging out on the sidewalk aren't even homeless — they just come to kill time or smoke K2. Waldrop refuses to clear them away because they're politically useful, the pastor says. The greater the chaos — Rice's theory goes — the more New Life's loft-dwelling neighbors will push the city to force the shelter to close.

"They're doing it to make us look bad," Rice says.

click to enlarge A child looks out a window of the Confluence Preparatory Academy. Homeless children attend the school, which is part of a network of charter schools that are tuition-free and operate independently of the city school system. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • A child looks out a window of the Confluence Preparatory Academy. Homeless children attend the school, which is part of a network of charter schools that are tuition-free and operate independently of the city school system.
click to enlarge BB Phillips, right, leads a group of homeless advocates during a rally in support of the New Life Evangelistic Center on November 17. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • BB Phillips, right, leads a group of homeless advocates during a rally in support of the New Life Evangelistic Center on November 17.

Larry Rice is not delusional in believing that his shelter is under attack, but his adversaries say the truth is far simpler than any of the pastor's conspiracy theories — they think he runs a dangerous operation that only hurts the homeless and his neighbors.

Rice provides few services and forces most of his overnighters out of the building each morning, leaving them little to do but hang out along the edges of the property, critics say.

"What I see are just large numbers of people that are congregating and don't have any place to go but on the sidewalk," says Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, who wants New Life closed. "That's not right."

Interim City Counselor Michael Garvin says New Life has operated without an occupancy permit since the shelter's original 32-bed hotel license was revoked in May 2015 in response to neighbors' complaints. To keep from being shut down, Rice would need to collect signatures from a majority of neighbors in support of a new permit, but Garvin says he's seen no evidence New Life has even begun to do that.

"They seem to be in a stall pattern," he says.

In recent months, the city has tried to redirect people away from New Life to a spectrum of services designed to get them back into permanent housing as quickly as possible. Eddie Roth, the city's director of human services, says the effort breaks the problem of homelessness into pieces. A little help with an electric bill or negotiating with a landlord will keep the majority of people from ever landing in a shelter or on the streets. Maybe $100 for groceries will entice a relative to let them stay at their place for a while. The approach is described as "housing first."

"The premise of diversion is any couch is better than any shelter bed," Roth says.

That approach doesn't work for everyone and not always right away, and so in August, the city opened the $2.5 million Biddle House. The shelter, located in a former public market building on North Tucker Boulevard, offers about 100 beds for single men at night, along with daytime services that include three meals and hot showers for anyone. Newly renovated with classroom space, an enclosed patio and paid staffers embedded onsite to help guests work through the issues that forced them out of their homes, Biddle House is the city's modern alternative to the aging New Life shelter.

Rice's operation, Roth says, was noble in its original intent to help the homeless and raise awareness of the problem, but the model is outdated and undercuts the coordinated strategies of nearly three dozen agencies supported by the city. Roth claims New Life "swamps the system" by encouraging needy people from across the region to come to St. Louis, leaving the city to tend to them when they exit the shelter.

Roth says Rice has refused to cooperate with any other service providers and "demonizes and vilifies" anyone who questions his methods.

"It's not right," Roth says.

Rice sees ulterior motives behind the growing criticism.

The city, he says, is embarrassed because he's doing a job it has failed to do — provide a roof overhead for people who have absolutely nowhere else to go. While Biddle House and other government-supported shelters require a comprehensive intake process and tend to fill up, New Life remains one of the last places where the desperate can show up on any given night and know they'll find a bed and a sandwich.

Short-timers can stay for two weeks or join one of the center's programs, which can last up to two years and include volunteer work around the shelter and daily worship. New Life's operation also includes an in-house television station that broadcasts its message to a broader audience and helps with fundraising.

"We're just trying to do the work of God," Rice says.

click to enlarge Staci Gill changes her four-month-old son Xavier Gill's diaper in New Life's family shelter. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Staci Gill changes her four-month-old son Xavier Gill's diaper in New Life's family shelter.

Staci Gill, 21, has lived at New Life for more than a month with her year-old daughter and baby. Her husband stays on a separate floor for men. She says relatives had kicked them out and they were out of options when the arrived.

"It's hard for me to get in anywhere," Gill says. "All of the other shelters you have to call in, and you call and they're full."

The city has said that if New Life closes, it will expand the number of beds at other facilities to handle the overflow, but Gill is skeptical. She doesn't want to stay at New Life forever, but she says she's made friends with other mothers who have helped with babysitting while she goes to school and her husband looks for work.

Scott Egan, New Life's 65-year-old shelter manager, arrived about three years ago. After retiring from the military, he had worked with the Salvation Army and was helping with disaster relief after a tornado when a tree crushed the roof of his home, he says. Egan planned to find a new home when his assignment was finished, but he says another volunteer at one of the relief sites accidentally tipped a pot of boiling water onto his lower leg. The burns put him in the hospital. He says he needed somewhere to recover when he was released, and Veterans Affairs suggested New Life.

He says he decided to stay.

"I really did want to stay here for a few years, because I did believe this was my calling," Egan says.

He suspects the root of the controversy surrounding New Life lies not in the shelter's operations, but in the increased number of high-end lofts in the gentrifying neighborhood. A short walk from Washington Avenue's bars and restaurants, the district has seen an influx of new, more wealthy residents in the past decade.

"There's no love lost between a lot of our neighbors and us," Egan says, "but I think a lot of this is being unfairly laid at our doorstep."

Rice says, "The bigotry is so clear." Well-off neighbors don't want to see homeless people near their homes, he adds. "The new n-word in America is 'homeless.'"

He directs much of his anger at Brad Waldrop, the developer who owns and manages properties surrounding New Life. Shelter workers regularly call police about problems in the sidewalk encampments in front of the Waldrop family's parking lots, according to Rice, but he claims officers tell them there is nothing they can do unless Waldrop complains. Instead, Waldrop lets them sit, knowing all the problems they create will be associated with New Life, Rice says.

"Did he also tell you that I'm dealing K2?" Waldrop deadpans when asked about Rice's accusations.

click to enlarge Carley Ott, left, holds her one-year-old daughter Tianna as she shares her story during a rally in support of New Life. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Carley Ott, left, holds her one-year-old daughter Tianna as she shares her story during a rally in support of New Life.
click to enlarge Abdullah Brown, 58, says he has been to homeless shelters around the country and that St. Louis needs to do a better job of taking care of the homeless. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Abdullah Brown, 58, says he has been to homeless shelters around the country and that St. Louis needs to do a better job of taking care of the homeless.

Waldrop has been battling New Life for nearly four years, leading a petition drive and testifying against Rice during a 2013 Board of Public Service hearing that ultimately led to the city's revocation of New Life's occupancy permit. He says Rice's theory that he condones or has any control over the encampments is a lie.

"This is just fucking insane to me," Waldrop says. "This guy, I don't know where he comes up with this stuff."

He says he's called police repeatedly over the years for fights, drug use and public sex acts — all tied to Rice's operation. And it's worth noting that police say, regardless of who complains, they can't just force people off a public sidewalk. That point was reinforced in 2005 when the city paid $80,000 to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of homeless people who claimed cops illegally cleared them out of downtown during the previous year's Fair St. Louis.

Waldrop, who was a board member for a now-shuttered day shelter, says he and others have tried over and over to get New Life to partner with the city on strategies to help the homeless or at least to make basic improvements, such as hiring full-time, professional security or allowing residents to stay inside during the day. Rice refuses to cooperate or even follow the law, he says.

"I want Larry Rice shut down because he's not helping people," Waldrop says.

The lawsuit filed in mid-November alleges that Rice uses his in-house television studio to attract people from the region to his shelter and tries to amplify problems in the neighborhood "as a core business practice."

"This is an intentional attempt to devastate the surrounding community as well as bait the community into taking actions in response to the vast nuisance created which [New Life] can use to gain media attention in order to solicit donations in order to maximize the financial profits of [New Life]," the suit says.

Waldrop knows he's in for a long legal battle. On this, he and Rice agree.

On a morning just days after the suit was filed, Rice speaks outside New Life to a group of demonstrators who've organized a rally in support of the shelter.

"We've got to stay open," he shouts. "They're trying to slash us with a thousand different knives."

A crowd of about two dozen people has gathered in a semicircle around him. A half-dozen cops look on from down the block. A few people from the encampments wander over.

"This is it," Rice says. "This is the line in the sand. This is the Alamo. This is where we'll make our last stand."

click to enlarge Rev. Larry Rice, left, speaks during a rally outside New Life on November 17. - PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
  • Rev. Larry Rice, left, speaks during a rally outside New Life on November 17.

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