Congressional staffers digging into application for Cape Girardeau homeless shelter

Sunday, May 10, 2009

U.S. Sen. Kit Bond last week won Senate passage of a proposal to vastly increase federal support for transitional programs designed to help the homeless obtain permanent housing, an idea like that being pushed by the New Life Evangelistic Center for the federal building in Cape Girardeau.

But Bond, R-Mo., along with U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., is using staff to dig deep into the New Life application to take over the building at the urging of local leaders who oppose the plan. The short time period allowed by federal rules for the Department of Health and Human Services to consider the application could also mean Bond and Emerson will have few avenues open to influence the decision.

"I have been kept advised of it and have written a letter to the secretary of HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] asking them to review it very carefully," Bond said during a visit to Cape Girardeau on Friday.

Surplus buildings like the federal building at 339 Broadway must, under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, be evaluated for suitability as a shelter for the homeless. Once that determination has been made, the building's availability is published in the Federal Register and an application period begins. The federal building on Broadway was listed as suitable Feb. 20.

The New Life Evangelistic Center submitted its application Monday, and the Department of Health and Human Services must make a decision within 25 days, according to published rules. The department does not make the final decision. The General Services Administration has the final word because the property is under that agency's control.

Emerson said she didn't know whether she would be able to influence the decision. But the best use for the building, she said, would be for Cape Girardeau County to purchase it and use it for courtrooms and county offices.

She sees New Life needing to make extensive renovations to make the building suitable for living. And she said New Life's leader, the Rev. Larry Rice, hasn't participated enough with local agencies to understand how current programs are working. "He never came in to meet with the community at large to discuss what was happening," Emerson said.

In response, Rice said he was willing to take part in any discussions about how to coordinate his proposal with community efforts but that his decision to obtain the federal building is non-negotiable. Federal law is on the side of the homeless, he said, and the reason he stepped in was because no local agency was acting on their behalf to ask for the building.

"We have no interest in competing," Rice said. "We want to complement what is there."


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