The Rice Conundrum; Our View; If City Wants Larry Rice out of Homeless Business, Find a Better Plan

Article excerpt

For more than 35 years, the homeless problem in St. Louis in many ways has revolved around the Rev. Larry Rice. City officials often complain about him, but he's done a job other people haven't lined up to do.

It is useless to speculate about the famously confrontational Mr. Rice's motives. He provides a necessary service that nobody else does. Period.

Histrionics, showboating, finger-pointing, name-calling and assorted other methods of headline-grabbing aside, since Mr. Rice's New Life Evangelistic Center at 1411 Locust Street opened in 1976, thousands of homeless people have spent the night there. A couple of hundred a night still do.

City Hall's attitude toward the shelter, and a variety of homeless encampments that Mr. Rice occasionally has erected, ebbs and flows. What doesn't change is the divisiveness. It has persisted through five mayoral administrations.

With lofts to be filled and images to be buffed, the current political climate is not sensitive to the people who line up outside the shelter at all hours, urinating in public, sleeping on the walkways, scuffling in the streets, drinking on the corners, panhandling and carrying on.

The magnificent Cass Gilbert-designed Central Library across the street from the shelter was closed for two years while it got a $70 million facelift before reopening late last year. Some of the homeless migrate across the street from New Life to the library, although more light and vigilant attendants have helped cut down on the population inside.

Immediately to the west of the shelter is the 12-story Terra Cotta Lofts, whose developers are trying to attract an upscale urban crowd that wants to be close to the action, but not that action and not that close.

The most recent chapter in the well-documented history of battles between Mr. Rice and local leaders involves a group of neighbors and business owners who want the city to yank the shelter's hotel license.

Reporter Jesse Bogan wrote in the Post-Dispatch on Monday that the group fighting New Life filed a stack of signed petitions with the Board of Public Service in April, seeking a hearing on their contention that the shelter is "being operated in such manner as to constitute a detriment to its neighborhood."

The tension between the communities is understandable. So is the city's desire to protect developers' investments and to encourage more of the same.

But if the city is to successfully discourage use of New Life, it must provide a better alternative. That means emergency, shorter- term shelter in close proximity to the kinds of resources food, social workers, public transportation that is needed by the homeless.

William Siedhoff, head of the city's Department of Human Services, has spent years working on the city's homeless problem. Mr. Siedhoff said in an interview Thursday that there are 534 beds available on a regular basis for the homeless in the city, and that 140 beds are added in the winter. …

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