Wednesday, May 13, 2009
I gave the Rev. Larry Rice the benefit of the doubt for a period of time as he talked about his plans to turn the old federal building in downtown Cape Girardeau into a homeless shelter. While I believe his plan would be harmful to downtown Cape, which is developing momentum in its rehabilitation, a community's economic development isn't Rice's goal, nor does it have to be. As he told this newspaper, "As long as there is one homeless person, there is a problem."
But the more Larry Rice talks, the quicker the benefit of the doubt evaporates.
Clearly, helping the homeless isn't the top priority on Rice's agenda. If so, why wasn't he engaged in discussions about his plan for the federal building with organizations here already working with the homeless? Instead, he had staffers telephone many of these agencies to talk about homelessness in generic terms and then twisted what they said for his government proposal. At the worst, his proposal may have fabricated positions.
When informed several of those included in his proposal protest how they were quoted -- saying they felt "deceived" -- Rice responded 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.
"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."
Hello, HUD, GSA and HHS! Is this the type of individual you want to give a 47,000-square-foot building to: a person who wildly impugns the character of those who have been fighting the good fight for the homeless, as well as the mayor, the United Way and pretty much any major donor to a charitable organization whose funds support help for the needy?
Rice argues there is a need to service the homeless in one of the largest buildings in town, but he couldn't make a much smaller building in downtown Cape work in the 1990s. In fact, after failing to maintain a homeless shelter on Morgan Oak Street, his St. Louis-based organization moved on to bigger things -- like claiming or trying to claim federal buildings in St. Louis and Springfield. Rice also built assets worth millions of dollars, according to media reports, leveraging his homeless ministry.
For anyone who wonders why Rice wants to come back to Cape Girardeau, let there be no illusion. Thanks to a quirky law that privileges homeless initiatives during the disposal of federal property, Rice has a favored position to claim the federal courthouse for free. And, not to do so, in his eyes, is criminal.
"The fact is I cannot in good conscience allow the mayor and the city council to literally steal this from the homeless," he said.
Do the opinions of local homeless advocates who have already established a network of options (including one pastor with a permanent housing location in a former nursing home that can house up to 100 individuals) that this is not a good building for such a purpose mean anything to Rice? Apparently not, perhaps because when he says he can't in good conscience step away from a claim on this building, he means that he doesn't want it stolen -- from him. His comments implicitly deride local homeless agencies for not trying to claim it themselves, although they tend to agree it's unnecessary, and for what might be helpful to the homeless: is too big, too costly to renovate and maintain, and in the wrong place.
And, if HUD, GSA or HHS were to turn his proposal down, what then? "There will be a long legal proceeding, and in the end, the courts will recognize that the building should be given to the homeless," he said, though his lawsuits aimed at gaining control of the Abrams federal building in St. Louis under a similar situation have been unsuccessful, except to have derailed plans for the building's original sale.
Not only would similar litigation here not help the homeless -- and cloud plans for other homeless services in the area -- it would lessen the eventual value of the building, which currently has a potential buyer in Cape Girardeau County that could use the existing courtrooms and office space.
This issue represents a test for the federal government, and specifically HUD, GSA and HHS. It is the government's decision whether it will give away one of the largest buildings in Cape Girardeau to become a homeless shelter run by a dubious and uncooperative individual who attempts to justify his plan by pledging to bring homeless to the town from a 22-county area, even though local homeless service providers disagree with his plan and call it unnecessary. Or it can deem Rice's request unsuitable, not upset the cooperative and collaborative nature of homeless assistance already present in the area, and allow the next step of the process -- which would lead to a sale of the building and a benefit to taxpayers -- to proceed.
Just what kind of government do we have?