Advocates for homeless seek reforms after man dies in St. Louis

Thursday, January 17, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Two ministers troubled by the death of a man living under a highway overpass called on the city Wednesday to designate land where the homeless can live safely outdoors.

The idea was quickly dismissed by the city's director of human services, who said providing the homeless with an empty lot to live in simply isn't an idea he can support.

The Revs. Larry Rice and Ray Redlich run the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis, where they say as many as 250 people a night have sought shelter this winter during bone-chilling weather. Things are so tight they have one married couple sleeping in a bathroom, Rice said.

The two ministers ducked below a highway overpass and placed a memorial evergreen wreath at the spot where Randy Pullen, a homeless man in his 40s, had been staying, his bedding wedged up against a crevice under the bridge. He died Friday, hit by a vehicle while trying to cross the interstate. They bowed their heads in prayer for Pullen and all the homeless.

"I've been at this 36 years, and I've never seen it so bad," Rice said.

Rice and Redlich want the city to open more emergency shelters and to set aside an acre where the homeless could stay outside.

Bill Siedhoff, St. Louis' director of human services, said Rice's organization doesn't participate in the city's homeless services network, so it may not have up-to-date information. He said the city routinely opens additional shelter and encourages the homeless to go inside in winter weather. He said there are 850 beds for the homeless in the city, not including New Life's shelter.

"As of last night, we still had 15 vacancies," he said.

Siedhoff said agencies in St. Louis work to get people into temporary shelter, to get them services and to help them transition into permanent homes.

A count in January 2006 found 1,386 homeless in St. Louis. That dropped to 1,322 in July of last year.

Siedhoff said Pullen's death sounds like an accident and that the solution was not to turn over land so people could live outside, an idea he said Rice had previously proposed.

"The last thing homeless people need is a vacant lot," he said.

The dispute over how to best care for the city's homeless is not the first between Rice and the city. Rice had sought to turn the 270,000-square-foot L. Douglas Abram Federal Building into a facility to serve about 1,000 homeless people, but a federal agency did not support the plan, much to the relief of city officials who also did not back the idea.

Rice said the idea for an outdoor area for the homeless came from a site in Portland, Ore., and was just one approach to provide some assistance. He envisioned a place where residents could build small shelters, perhaps using solar power, to live in safety.

Rice and Redlich pointed to other homeless deaths, such as the Jan. 5 death of Dennis Harris, who had been living at Kiener Plaza downtown and was allegedly beaten and stomped by another homeless man Dec. 29.

"There's still a great, gaping hole in the safety net," Rice said. "We have to come up with lots of creative programs."

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