Agencies criticize how they were portrayed in Cape homeless shelter application

Sunday, May 10, 2009
Karen Daugherty, executive director of the Mending Hearts program in Cape Girardeau, center, and Stacy Sullivant, program director, left, chats with Shelia Guy a graduate from the recovery program on the porch of the Mending Hearts house Friday. Mending Hearts is a recovery program helping homeless women with alcohol and substance abuse issues. Guy came by to visit and to talk one on one with someone about being laid off from her job last week. (Elizabeth Dodd)

In its application to acquire the Cape Girardeau federal building, the New Life Evangelistic Center described current homeless services in the area and reported what agency directors said about local needs.

In addition, many agency leaders were quoted as saying they welcome New Life and would eagerly join it in a partnership to provide counseling, treatment and other services as part of its program of transitional housing.

As city government, spurred by Mayor Jay Knudtson, leads an effort to derail New Life's application, many of those same agencies are now criticizing both New Life's plan and the way it gathered information.

New Life Evangelistic Center applied Monday to obtain the 47,000-square-foot building at 339 Broadway. The building formerly housed federal courts, now in the Rush H. Limbaugh Sr. U.S. Courthouse on Independence Street. Other federal offices were in the building, and those that remain will move soon.

New Life wants to provide space for up to 125 people in a long-term transitional program. The shelter would accept men, women and families and also provide emergency help for homeless who did not want to join a long-term program. The Rev. Larry Rice, New Life's founder, has said he will emphasize help for homeless veterans.

Mending Hearts is a recovery program helping homeless women with alcohol and substance abuse issues. (Elizabeth Dodd)

At Mending Hearts, a 10-bed program for women with substance abuse problems, executive director Karen Daugherty and program director Stacy Sullivant said they had one conversation with a representative of New Life who did not mention the federal building. And while they said they agreed Cape Girardeau could use a shelter offering help to the general population of homeless, they do not agree that the federal building is the best place to put it.

"We did get sucked in," Sullivant said. "When he sucked us in, telling us they would provide transitional housing something like what we are doing, only for men and maybe women with children, of course we were on board with that."

Rice replied that he sees a coercive hand behind the opposition and wondered if any agency had been threatened with a loss of funding if they refused. The people he assigned to work on the application honestly reported what they were told, he said, and never deceived anyone about New Life's intent to seek the federal building.

"There is an element of fear that is present at this time," Rice said. "The mayor has connections with donors to these agencies, and he has the ability to make things difficult in Cape Girardeau."

None of the agency directors quoted in the application and interviewed by the Southeast Missourian, however, said they feel pressured to oppose Rice. Instead, while many said they would welcome Rice if he found another building they consider suitable, they are upset by how their comments are portrayed.

"The plan is very well written," said Nancy Jernigan, director of United Way of Southeast Missouri. "The questions in my mind are the location, specifically the building even more than the location. It doesn't seem like the best use of funds due to the amount of funds it is going to take to renovate it."

The United Way supports many of the local agencies New Life described in its application as supportive of the plan.

Opposition letters from community providers are intended to be part of a city response package that will be completed this week. The response will also include concerns from city, county and business leaders as well as a law enforcement response and point-by-point discussion of New Life's proposal.

Pastor Joyce Hungate runs the only shelter in Cape Girardeau County that takes care of the general homeless population. She uses a former nursing home with 40 client rooms at 914 Old Cape Road in Jackson. Each client must undergo a police check, pay rent and make a strong effort to obtain work to remain.

"I'm tough on them," she said. "My reputation is you don't go there if you don't want to work."

Hungate previously ran a similar program in Cape Girardeau on Sprigg Street. She moved to Jackson when the nursing home became available and because, she said, she could not find a similar adequate building in Cape Girardeau.

When she first moved to Jackson, she encountered opposition from the city and neighbors. She was sued twice by Jackson over zoning issues, lawsuits that have been resolved with promises to meet housing codes. Now, she said, her relationship with the city is a good one.

While Hungate has declined to write a letter opposing Rice, she questions the need for a shelter that could house 125 people, as New Life is proposing. She said she has room for up to 100, depending on whether she is helping families or single people, and is only full in the winter.

"There isn't that much of a need," Hungate said.

She said she, too, felt deceived by the lack of information about where New Life planned to put its program. "They said they were some ministry," she said. "I never told him there was a need for it."

The reason Rice sees for Hungate's shelter to be below capacity is the location. Homeless people often have no transportation, he said, and a shelter in Jackson is too far away from Cape Girardeau to be convenient. A shelter has to be close to where the homeless are and close to services, he said.

The federal building is directly across the street from the Marquette Tower, where state government has its local Career Center and family support offices, Rice noted. It is also on the city's bus line, which also goes by Department of Social Services offices for public assistance and child support at 710 Southern Expressway.

"They have to have an address to apply for welfare, unemployment benefits and anything else," Rice said. "They want to keep them out of sight, out of mind. Ship them to Jackson, put them on the road with a bus ticket after two nights of housing. That is the policy that is in place, and that is the policy that has been confronted by our proposal."

Linda Gardner, executive director of the Safe House for Women, said she was misquoted in the application, seeming to promise more help and support than she can commit to without a formal agreement. She said the conversation she had with a New Life representative was so casual that she didn't bother to take the person's name. She didn't expect she would become part of the application.

"The information they presented was that they were considering opening a homeless program in Cape Girardeau next year, but they never mentioned where," Gardner said. "I collaborate with everybody in Cape Girardeau on homeless issues. I almost feel as if the person that called was not being forthright."

Under the umbrella of the Community Caring Council, a multiagency group meets monthly to discuss housing issues for the needy. Those discussions have resulted in a church-based program called Room at the Inn in which churches provide overnight shelter.

New Life should have become part of those discussions before making its application so local providers could become comfortable with its perspective and plan, Gardner said.

"There are unmet needs," Gardner said. "It is going to take all of us to address those housing needs, and that should take place through the forum that is already existing."

New Life will participate in the housing meetings once it knows it will become part of the community, Rice said. The church-based program can help a few, he said, but it is not widely known. And Rice said he's already accomplished something in Cape Girardeau that has been lacking -- a public conversation about the homeless and needy.

"There has been more dialogue than there probably has been in years," he said. "The powers that be have been effective in stepping on the poor. But they can't take the federal building by eminent domain, and they can't drive the homeless out. That is not going to solve the problem."

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent addresses:

339 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

1411 Locust St., St. Louis, MO

914 Old Cape Road, Jackson, MO

219 N. Henderson Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

430 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

Do you approve of the proposal to use the old federal building in Cape Girardeau as a homeless shelter?

 Yes, more resources are required to help those in need in the region
 No, the facility is a good idea but should be somewhere else in the city
 No, creating a facility in the area is not a good idea or is not needed
 Other opinion

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