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

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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Michael Garvin says New Life has operated without an occupancy permit since the shelter's original 32-bed hotel license was revoked in May 2015 in response to neighbors' complaints.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.

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