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City panel approaches decision on embattled shelter's request for permit exemptions

New Life attorney Todd Lubben, right, asks New Life Vice President Raymond Redlich a question during testimony May 26, 2016.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
New Life attorney Todd Lubben, right, asks New Life Vice President Raymond Redlich a question during testimony Thursday as attorneys for the city of St. Louis, the St. Louis Public Library and neighboring businesses and residents look on.

Updated May 26 with final testimony - By this time next month New Life Evangelistic Center could know whether St. Louis will give the downtown shelter a new occupancy permit without the approval of its neighbors. The city's Board of Building Appeals finished hearing testimony Thursday in an appeal requested by New Life. The shelter is also asking for an exemption to continue operating within 500 feet of a school.

The appeal is a follow-up to a December 2014 ruling, when another city board found New Life was a detriment to the neighborhood.

New Life is trying to keep offering shelter to as many as 300 people a night. The city and many of the shelter's neighbors want New Life to reduce its numbers or close.

Rev. Raymond Redlich, New Life's vice president, was the sole witness on the final day of testimony.  He said setting a limit on the number of people New Life serves conflicts with his religious beliefs.

"We believe that we are mandated by God to help the poor and the homeless and we would very much be conflicted if we had to turn somebody away when we know that they very well might die on a winter night out there," Redlich said.

Redlich also said other shelters would not be able to take care of all of the homeless in St. Louis without New Life.

After testifying for almost an hour, Redlich was cross-examined by city attorney Michael Garvin and attorney Elkin Kistner, who represents real estate developer Brad Waldrop and several other residents and business owners.

New Life Evangelistic Center is located in downtown St. Louis.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo
New Life Evangelistic Center is in downtown St. Louis at 1411 Locust.

Redlich agreed with Kistner that New Life would not be at the appeals hearing if Waldrop hadn't petitioned the city to take a look at the downtown shelter's effect on the neighborhood.

"The people who, in effect, started this matter, who cared about their neighborhood, should be deprived of the opportunity to weigh in as to whether or not the overnight shelter application permit should be granted for 1411 Locust, that's what you're requesting," Kistner said.

Redlich said New Life wouldn't be asking to skip getting the approval of its neighbors if the neighbors weren't prejudiced against the shelter.

The  Board of Building Appeals will hear closing arguments June 16 before deciding whether to grant New Life the exemptions it's requested.

Updated April 28 — Testimony for and against New Life Evangelistic Center continued Thursday in the fifth hearing before the city’s Board of Building Appeals. The city board is tasked with deciding whether the downtown shelter can apply for a new occupancy permit without written support from its neighbors, and despite being next door to a school.

The most significant witness to testify Thursday was Scott Egan, a shelter manager for New Life Evangelistic Center.

In contrast to witnesses for the St. Louis Public Library and Confluence Academy, Egan said the environment immediately surrounding New Life has improved since the city ruled last year that New Life was a detriment to the neighborhood.

“I can’t speak to what goes on at the library or what goes on at Christ Church Cathedral,” said Egan, adding that New Life has hired security guards, and now enforces a no loitering policy. People are only allowed to congregate immediately outside New Life before they are admitted each night.

Asked about photos of people loitering across the street near the school and library, Egan questioned whether the people in the photos were residents of New Life.

“I believe it’s the library district’s responsibility to provide security for the library. I believe it’s the school security’s (responsibility) to provide security in front of the school. And I believe if that’s a problem for the school then that’s something they need to address with the police department,” said Egan.

New Life’s neighbors include the Central Library and Confluence Academy. They hold the shelter accountable for what they say is a dangerous environment.

Egan, like New Life founder Larry Rice, sees serving the homeless as a religious imperative.

“I’m a member of a religious community that’s carrying out a mandate that we feel as Christians was given to us by Christ to fulfill our duty to house the homeless, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those sick and in prison,” said Egan, referring to a scripture in the gospel of Matthew.

If the city board rules with the city’s building commissioner and denies the shelter’s appeal for an occupancy permit, New Life plans to refile a federal court case arguing that they have a right to operate a shelter on religious freedom grounds.

Updated April 1, 2016 with details from third hearing — New Life Evangelistic Center introduced its first witness Thursday in a city appeals process that will determine whether the downtown shelter can obtain a new occupancy permit.

STL Winter Outreach founder Teka Childress testified that New Life plays a vital role by providing emergency shelter.

“We cannot blame New Life for the fact that we have homeless people downtown. We have homeless people throughout our country, especially in urban areas. And the problem is homelessness and what we need is a community to do more about it,” said Childress. “New Life is part of that continuum of help to offer emergency shelter that cannot be gotten quickly almost anywhere else.”

STL Winter Outreach volunteers comb the streets of St. Louis on cold nights to bring people indoors. Childress also works for BJC Behavioral Health, and began working with the homeless at a shelter called Karen House in the 1970s.

She testified that shelters that serve fewer people than New Life does would be better, but until more shelters are able to open New Life needs to be able to offer as much shelter as necessary.

“Part of the solution is opening a lot of small shelters all over, but it’s very difficult to open a shelter outside of downtown,” Childress said. “My fear is that the homeless would have no place to go if New Life were to close.”

One of the police officers who testified for the city Thursday also said New Life is sometimes the only place for the homeless to go.

Officer Larry Dampier said he and his partner “had to use New Life as our last resort” this winter when other shelters were full.

Dampier and his partner also testified that they see fights break out among people outside of New Life on a regular basis, often over items of clothing or food dropped off for them. They also said they saw often saw residents of New Life drinking alcohol, using drugs and urinating in public.

“We get a high volume of calls because of the gatherings during the [intake and release] times,” Dampier said. “They range from loitering to I think these people are fighting, I think there’s drug sales.”

Officer Larry Dampier testifies before the city's Board of Building Appeals Thurs. Mar. 31, 2016 as New Life supporters listen.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Officer Larry Dampier testifies before the city's Board of Building Appeals Thurs. Mar. 31, 2016 as New Life supporters listen.

Dampier also said earlier this week he handled a sexual assault case involving a registered sex offender who regularly stays at New Life.

A teacher and administrator with the charter school located across the street form New Life also testified Thursday.

Business administrator Gloria Willis said she hired security to clear people off the grounds of Confluence Academy Prep before school each morning, and that a New Life resident was recently arrested after approaching a female student.

Teacher Suzy Catarinicchia said that learning is disrupted in her classroom at times when her students are disturbed by what they see out of the classroom windows, which look out on New Life.

“We have seen what appears to be drug usage. We have seen public urination. We have seen acts of oral sex,” Catarinicchia said. “We’ve seen what appear to be drug interactions as far as exchanges. We’ve seen physical fights. We’ve seen verbal fights.”

Catarinichia said her students have also called 911 on their cell phones to get people help on several occasions, including once when a woman left the shelter with a toddler before falling asleep on her luggage and allowing the child to run in the street.

Homeless advocate Teka Childress was the final witness to testify on Thursday. New Life residents and staff are expected to speak at the next hearing scheduled for April 21.

Updated March 24 after second day of testimony -- A downtown homeless shelter continues to draw fire from its neighbors as a city board considers a new permit for the shelter.

Residents and business owners with property near New Life Evangelistic Center testified Thursday in support of the city’s decision to deny the shelter’s request for exemptions.

New Life wants an occupancy permit to house as many as 300 people a night, but the St. Louis building commissioner says it’s against the city’s code to issue a permit within 500 feet of a school or without the written support of its neighbors.

Matt O’Leary was the first resident to testify Thursday. He said New Life has made the neighborhood more dangerous over the past 18 months.

“I stopped taking my children to Lucas Park and to Central Library in the end of 2014 when I forbade my wife and my nanny from taking my children into the vicinity of Lucas Park, Central Library, New Life Evangelistic Center due to the chaos and violence,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary works for real estate developer Brad Waldrop, who initiated a petition process against New Life a few years back. That petition resulted in the city finding that New Life was a detriment to the neighborhood last year. 

Residents Lauralyn Parmelee and Howard Wynder also testified against New Life. Parmelee said she no longer feels safe walking down her street and Wynder said he discovered that a man on the sex offender list has stayed at New Life on multiple occasions.

Real estate developer Brad Waldrop and restauranteur Adam Frager testified as business owners with property near the shelter. Frager owns restaurant Blood and Sand. Both men said they’ve witnessed drug activity connected to New Life and that the shelter has had a negative impact on their businesses. Waldrop said one of his lessees is suing him in order to leave his building eearly.  

The final witness for St. Louis Public Library, Barry Berry, also testified Thursday. Berry is in charge of the library’s security and custodial services, and said the library pays almost $150,000 a year on those two services.

Witnesses who support New Life are expected to testify on March 31.

Updated March 10 after first day of testimony--New Life Evangelistic Center is back before a city board a year after the St. Louis Board of Public Service declared its homeless shelter was a"detriment to the neighborhood"and ordered New Life to reduce the number of people it houses each night or apply for a new occupancy permit.

The city's Board of Building Appeals is considering New Life's request to for permit exemptions in order to continue housing as many as 325 people a night without getting written support from its neighbors. New Life's location across the street from charter school Confluence Academy is also at issue. 

The St. Louis Building Division denied those requests in December. In a letter to New Life, Building Commissioner Frank Oswald wrote that it didn’t seem like New Life had made enough changes to stop being a detriment to the neighborhood and added that he did “not believe it would be sound policy to grant an exemption that would allow (New Life) to simply continue ‘business as usual’ with its shelter operations.”

New Life founder Rev. Larry Rice said Thursday he hopes the Board of Building Appeals treats the hearing as more than a"rubber stamp, but he expects an "unsatisfactory hearing."

"What we're seeing is gentrification sweeping through our neighborhood that wants the homeless out of sight, out of mind," Rice said. "We just want to take care of women, children, the hurting and the homeless."

Rice said he anticipates a return to federal court proceedings in the future. A federal judge ruled in December that New Life must go through the occupant permit application process before it can take the city to court.

Building Commissioner Frank Oswald testified first Thursday, followed by three St. Louis Public Library employees. Central Library is located catty corner from the shelter. The library’s Angela Nolan said that one custodian spends six to eight hours a day cleaning up after the homeless around the library perimeter.

"There are large amounts of blankets, clothing that are left, a lot of food containers, a lot of food. A lot of urine and feces. And this is a daily occurrence as well as drug paraphernalia and vomit."

Library witnesses also said as many as half of its visitors each day are homeless, and they scare other patrons away by causing disturbances and leaving behind a mess.

Oswald defended his interpretation of city code and testified that he was concerned that New Life continued to want a permit for the same number of people. City Counsel Michael Garvin also argued Oswald had to treat New Life's permit application as a new permit because New Life's old permit was revoked last May by the Board of Public Service ruling.

The board is slated to hear testimony in favor of New Life on March 24. 

In appeal paperwork filed in January, New Life Attorney Todd Lubben wrote that since New Life has been a homeless shelter for more than 30 years it should not be required to get written support from its neighbors. “The signature requirement applies or should apply to new homeless shelters that are opening in St. Louis City and not to the renewal of a permit,” Lubben said.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has said on multiple occasions that New Life is not a quality option for people who are homeless.

During a recent interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Slay said that he thought “the conditions need to be better” at New Life and that “it’s important that homeless service centers have to be good neighbors as well.”

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter @cmpcamille.