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New Life Evangelistic Center To Close In May Unless Changes Are Made

Protests at Board of Public Service meeting 12-23-14
(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

The city's Board of Public Service has ruled that the emergency homeless shelter at the New Life Evangelistic Center is a detriment to the neighborhood and must close in May unless it changes the way it operates.

Tuesday's unanimous vote by the board provoked shouts of "Shame!" and "What would Jesus do!" from a standing-room-only crowd, followed by chants of "homeless lives matter!" Crowd members also accused the board of holding an illegal meeting because they allowed no time for public comment. 

The shelter at 1411 Locust is not closing immediately. Board members gave its director, Larry Rice, until May 12 to either reduce the number of people staying at the shelter overnight to 32, as allowed by its original permit from 1976, or get a new permit for more people.

A defiant Rice said he would do neither.

"As long as they continue to operate that all-white board, you're going to see anyone who's African-American or [who] is helping African-Americans who don't have money, shoved out of the community," Rice said. "They tell me we have until May 12. God has told me I'm supposed to shelter the homeless. I have to choose between obeying God and man."

Public safety director Richard Gray is the only black member of the Board of Public Service, but he did not vote on NLEC's permit because he was not on the board during the initial hearings. Newly appointed human services director Eddie Roth, who called the ruling a good compromise, had also not been present for the earlier hearings.

"The Board of Public Service offered a road map to Rev. Rice to bring him into compliance," Roth said. "It gives him plenty of time to figure it out, and I'm looking forward to working with him to see if he wants to join the continuum of care."

Two-Year-Old Fight

The battle over NLEC's occupancy permit began in December 2012, when downtown residents and business owners began collecting signatures to force the Board of Public Service to determine if the shelter could be considered a "roominghouse or hotel detrimental to the neighborhood." Hearings that began in September 2013 generated a voluminous record of more than 500 pages.

The BPS was poised to vote in October when Mayor Francis Slay stepped in and encouraged the residents and Rice to sit down and negotiate. Although the two sides exchanged proposals, the effort went nowhere and the board scheduled Tuesday's hearing.

Rice is appealing the ruling to state and federal courts. Roth said the city is prepared to defend the board's decision. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.