Bid to turn federal building into homeless shelter rejected

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- The U.S. government on Monday rejected a minister's bid to transform a sprawling federal building into a nexus of homeless services -- a plan the city's mayor termed "warehousing" detrimental to downtown.

Hours after the decision, the Rev. Larry Rice said he would take the matter to the courts, stalling developer Donald Breckenridge's city-backed plan to use the building for a parking area next to the Kiel Opera House, which Breckenridge wants to rehab.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions hopefully we can get answered by going to court," Rice said.

Rice has said his center planned for the 270,000-square-foot L. Douglas Abram Federal Building would serve 1,000 homeless people. The site would include a day center, health-care clinic, job-training site, alcohol and drug treatment center, free clothing store and shelters for both families and individuals.

In scuttling the Rev. Larry Rice's plans, the Department of Health and Human Services told him his New Life Evangelistic Center failed to prove a "requisite need" for the homeless center. The agency also questioned whether Rice "has the necessary experience and financial ability" to manage a project of such scope.

"The application does not establish that a need exists for additional shelter beds and support services for the homeless in the city of St. Louis," wrote Heather Ransom, chief of HHS' property management division. "Instead, the application was nonsystemic in presenting data on need, tending to cite data that did not have a direct bearing on the programs to be developed."

The General Services Administration told homeless groups last September that the federal building will be vacant in 2006 after its occupant -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- moves to another location.

Under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the federal government can make surplus federal buildings available for use by nonprofit agencies, local governments and state agencies helping the homeless.

"We feel a strong obligation to pursue this further, mainly to determine whether the McKinney Act is worth the paper it's printed on," Rice said. "I guess we'll return to court, clarifying the fact that surplus federal property is to be used" on homeless causes.

Mayor Francis Slay, who has called homelessness a regional problem the city of St. Louis cannot be expected to solve alone, said Monday that "warehousing 1,000 people in one place would be bad for downtown, bad for the city of St. Louis and bad for the homeless."

"We think working together as a region to develop a plan to end chronic homelessness is a far better approach," Slay said in a statement.

The mayor said emphasizing permanent housing -- "not the older paradigm of walling up the homeless in giant shelters in the central city" -- would best address homelessness.

Breckenridge, looking to convert at least part of the federal building into an 800-vehicle parking garage, called Monday's developments "a great day for the city."

"This will be a great addition to our downtown," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of the opera house and the planned parking garage.

Breckenridge said he expects to spend nearly $30 million on the opera house and $7.5 million turning the federal building into parking space, with 10,000 to 15,000 square feet of the Abram site to be used for rehearsal space.

Rice said his group's existing shelter is much smaller and "severely overcrowded." The Abram building would be ideal for the group's five-year "Freedom Plan" for breaking the cycle of homelessness, he said.

Rice has scoffed at the idea of favoring a parking lot over homeless children and women, saying in January that "let the people who want to go to the Opera House walk a block or two, but these people have to have a place to go."

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