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Minister to Homeless Fights Plan to Shut Down Riverfront Tent Dwellings

Kevin Killeen
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Homeless Camp on the St. Louis Riverfront, spring 2011

Homeless Camp on the St. Louis Riverfront, spring 2011

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ST. LOUIS–(KMOX)–A longtime minister to the homeless is fighting City Hall’s plan to shut down a tent city on the riverfront, saying the tents are “cost effective to taxpayers” and they help those who can’t find permanent housing.

The Reverend Larry Rice of the New Life Center says he doubts the city can find permanent, taxpayer-funded housing for everyone living in three adjoining encampments — Hopeville, Dignity Harbor and Sparta.

“It’s an absolutely necessary piece of the overall puzzle of dealing with the problem of homelessness,” Rice said, “Affordable housing is a major piece. But all these pieces must play together, including shelters for people who don’t have a place to go, and when shelters are full, a tent community.”

img 2448 Minister to Homeless Fights Plan to Shut Down Riverfront Tent Dwellings

Bill Siedhoff, Director of Human Services, city of St. Louis

The Slay Administration has announced its plans to evict the riverfront homeless and place them in permanent supportive housing by mid-May.

Director of Human Services Bill Siedhoff says he believes they will be able to find housing for the some 50 residents he says are living in the three encampments. (Rice says the number living there may be more than 100, and Siedhoff suspects Rice is directing homeless to move there now to thwart the city’s efforts to clear the riverfront.)

“If he thinks it’s better to live in some rat-infested tent city where they had a murder last year, than in permanent supportive housing, then he needs to have his head examined,” Siedhoff said.

Rice admits that the riverfront settlement has been “like Dodge City without Matt Dillon,” but he claims things are “quieting down” there now, and that the tent community provides a sense of stability for the homeless.

Siding with Rice at a news conference were three residents of Hopeville, who claimed it’s been a positive place for them.

Illinois residents Marty and Michelle Keno have been living in Hopeville with their two children, so that Marty can be closer to Barnes Jewish hospital, where Marty says he receives treatment for liver cancer.

“It was rough at first and rained on us a couple times,” Marty said, “If it wasn’t for Hopeville and Larry Rice helping us we wouldn’t have gotten no help.”

His wife also spoke up in defense of the riverfront dwelling.

“I am thankful for Hopeville being there,” Michelle said, “It took the wear and tear out of us. It gave us a sense of togetherness and rest. There’s water there and we could wash.”

St. Louis resident Dwight Cofer says he became homeless in mid-March when the city boarded up his house because it had no utilities. Cofer says he came to Rice’s homeless shelter at 1411 Locust and was directed to move to Hopeville.

img 3766 Minister to Homeless Fights Plan to Shut Down Riverfront Tent Dwellings

The Rev. Larry Rice with Michelle and Marty Keno, and Dwight Cofer

“It really has helped me have some place to stay off the streets, out of the weather and in somewhat of a dwelling,” Cofer said.

When asked how the impending phase-out of the riverfront life is playing around the campfires, Cofer said many are hoping the city can find them something better.

“Everybody’s worried,” Cofer said, “They don’t know if they’re going to follow through on it, or is this just a carrot on a string.”

Siedhoff had no figures available on how much money the city intends to spend on relocating the riverfront homeless, but he says the city does receive $14 million annually in federal funds for homeless services. (Of that, Siedhoff claims no more than five-percent is spent on administrative costs.)

Rice believes the city may pushing to get the homeless into its system, because of what Rice calls the “social industrial complex.”

“When you have a community pop up like these tent communities, you can’t control the money,” Rice said, “You don’t have any money filtering through somebody’s hands. You’re not providing some social worker a 50, 60,70-thousand dollar job out of the money that comes from the federal government.”

Siedhoff bristles at the suggestion that he’s motivated by federal grant money.

“That’s ridiculous,” Siedhoff said, “What we’re doing is trying to end homelessness. We’re not doing this just to perpetuate our own positions.”

Siedhoff also addressed a rumor that Rice said he “had heard,” that the city wants the homeless off the riverfront because they would be a bad first impression for motorists crossing the new Mississippi River bridge nearing completion nearby.img 77162 Minister to Homeless Fights Plan to Shut Down Riverfront Tent Dwellings

“This has nothing to do with that,” Siedhoff said, “It’s all about public safety and public health.”

Rice is dusting off a petition drive that was shelved earlier, calling on the city to set aside an acre of land somewhere for the homeless to have a tent city. He also plans to march on city hall Friday morning with “some Hopeville residents ” to call attention to the issue.

Siedhoff says Rice is “trying to perpetuate what we already know won’t work.”

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