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Downtown homeless shelter stakeholders negotiate in attempt to avoid trial

New Life Evangelistic Center director Larry Rice (center) said the emergency homeless shelter will seek an injunction against a city deadline to reduce its overnight beds.
Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio
New Life Evangelistic Center director Larry Rice (center) said the emergency homeless shelter will seek an injunction against a city deadline to reduce its overnight beds.

Updated 11:45 p.m. May 28

Rev. Larry Rice, city of St. Louis attorneys and neighborhood stakeholders are continuing with mediation that could allow his homeless shelter downtown to remain open and avoid going to trial this September.

According to a spokeswoman for New Life Evangelistic Center, the parties met for 9 hours on Wednesday in Clayton, but reached no final agreements.

Rice is suing the city over its plans to shut down his walk-in shelter at 1411 Locust St. The city has given Rice until October 15 to comply with the shelter’s 32-person occupancy permit that it’s held for nearly 40 years. NLECS is the largest walk-in shelter in the metro area and often houses more than a few hundred people at a time.

Rice is suing in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals claiming violations of his constitutional rights to speech and religion. The court-ordered mediation is required before moving forward with the suit, he said.

“We’ll lay out what we want; they’ll lay out what they want. If their demands remain as adamant as when we had an earlier negotiation, that ‘no, we want 32 people. That’s it, that’s all we’re going to permit. You’re out.’ Then it’s all going to fall apart,” he said.

A spokesperson for City Hall declined comment due to the pending negotiations.

Updated 1:20 p.m. March 3 with filing of complaint

The Rev. Larry Rice has asked a federal judge to block the pending closure of his homeless shelter at the New Life Evangelistic Center in downtown St. Louis, saying efforts by the city of St. Louis to shutter the facility violate the non-profit's freedom of religion.

"The Church and its members believe the Bible teaches that salvation is a result of the grace of God extended to sinful human beings through Jesus Christ, and those who have received God's grace are called to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and care for the sick and imprisoned," attorneys for New Life and Rev. Rice wrote in the complaint filed Tuesday in federal court. "Based on these Biblical mandates, New Life and its members fully believe that serving the poor and less fortunate members of society, including sheltering the homeless, is an essential and indispensable function of the Church's religious worship and beliefs."

New Life is asking a federal jury to block the city from enforcing the Board of Public Service ruling, and is asking for damages.

The city's Board of Public Service ruled in December that New Life, at 1411 Locust St., was a detriment to the neighborhood. The shelter — which Rice admits in court filings holds as many as 300 people a night — will be allowed to stay open past May 12  if it reduces its capacity to the 32 people allowed in its original permit, or if it gets a new permit to house more people.

Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, confirmed the city had received the lawsuit. She said the city remains on track with its plans to open its own emergency shelters in the city. Bids for the work are due March 11.

Our original story

The New Life Evangelistic Center in downtown St. Louis plans to soon file for a federal injunction against the city. That's after a city board voted to require the emergency homeless shelter to reduce its overnight beds to 32 by May 12, or be closed. 

New Life director, the Rev.  Larry Rice said the center provides necessary emergency walk-in shelter for the homeless that he says is currently lacking from city-organized resources.

"They put together this system, but they've made it so hard that the very people who need the help the most can't get it in their time of emergency," he said. "They can't walk-in, except when the temperature is 20 degrees or less."

But the city announced last week it plans to open two emergency shelters by mid-April. It will also fund shelters, many of which are part of the city's Continuum of Care for Ending Homelessness, to expand available beds. The plan will provide walk-in, emergency overnight shelter for an additional 225 people.

In a blog post published last week, Mayor Francis Slay said it was time for the city to change the way it offers emergency shelter for the homeless.

"It is not good enough to warehouse people for a night, in substandard conditions, give them a meal, and then send them on their way to fend for themselves until darkness comes again," the mayor wrote. "Without question, providing food and temporary shelter is necessary, and at times, lifesaving. But, it is just as important to spend the time, energy and other resources to help people who are homeless live a more stable, safe, and dignified life." 

But Chris Rice, the director's son and a minister at New Life, said claims that New Life doesn't help people transition into more permanent housing or offer services is "propaganda" and criticized the city's lack of resources for the homeless. 

"This is directed at us because someone has got to be beat up over the fact this is a mess right now," he said. "Just the fact that for the last 10 years, they've been saying they are going to end chronic homelessness. The plan has not worked. They never had enough shelter to start with. Now in front of the eyes of the watching world, this is a fiasco, and they're trying to save face by saying we're the problem."

Back in December, the city's Board of Public Service voted that New Life was a detriment to the neighborhood. In his blog post, Mayor Slay said it is important to make sure those who are providing services to the homeless are monitored to ensure they are "good neighbors, and that any problem is met with a prompt and effective response."

Larry Rice said he believes the vote was rooted in racism and bias against the homeless, and called the requirement to reduce the number of beds available an "evil act." He said he doesn't believe the city is serious about providing emergency shelter.

"If they eliminate us, and scatter resources all over the city, in the middle of the night people don't know which ones are open and where to go," Rice said. "They call the hotline and they tell them they don't have any room. Then people are left on the street to despair. That's why we can't take the mayor at his word that he's going to help provide shelter for those people."

But Slay said the city's plan will involve "multiple agencies ... working together to provide immediate shelter but also to move guests out of shelter as quickly as possible and toward permanent housing and independent living."

Additionally, the city is only requiring New Life to reduce its number of beds, per its original permit, and will only close the facility if no reduction occurs. Rice has indicated he will not comply because to do so would violate his religious commitment.

"When people practice what believe, and local government says you can't do that — particularly that provision of shelter is a function of worship — then we have to try the Constitution to see if it's going to protect the religious freedoms that are guaranteed under that Constitution ... and it looks like that's where we're headed," he said. 

Rice said New Life plans to file its injunction citing the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which seeks to "protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws."
New Life also plans to open a new facility and shelter in Venice, Ill.

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