Same old tactics from Larry Rice

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Give me keys to another building at no cost, and I'll drop my claim on the federal building." That's the message Larry Rice delivered through the Southeast Missourian on Wednesday to city hall.

That's what called a "shakedown" in some corners of the world. But Rice has used this tactic before, and he likes to use a different term. When the Department of Health and Human Services rejected his proposal for the Abrams Federal Building in St. Louis, KWMU 90.7 reported: "Rev. Rice said he plans to sue HHS, but he also remains open to negotiating with the city for another building."

Shakedown? Negotiation?

To-ma-to. To-mah-to.

In the case of the federal building in Cape Girardeau, Rice, who has no connections here, is seeking to exploit a clause in the federal law to receive a building for free. Savvy manipulator of the law? Yes. Good businessman? That depends on how you measure the term "good." But in this corner of the world, we call such tactics "shady."

Offering to "negotiate" for a free building -- while otherwise pledging to sue or bring thousands of homeless to town by whatever means necessary -- isn't the only tactic that Rice is recycling in Cape Girardeau. A quick read of news reports charting his attempt to claim the federal building in St. Louis also reveals the same tactic of attacking other organizations assisting the homeless. Here are a couple lines from an archived story in What's Up magazine:

"The reason you don't see any other homeless service providers seeking out this building is because they are afraid of losing their funding. 'They are not working for the homeless,' Rice adds. 'They are working for (Mayor) Francis Slay. They are not free to serve the homeless.'"

Change the names around, and it's the same thing Rice has been saying about opposition in Cape Girardeau. Rice apparently can't accept that nearly everyone, especially those working with the homeless here, think his plan for the federal building on Broadway is simply a bad idea.

*

On Wednesday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a front-page story by Adam Jadhav about Rice's efforts to obtain the Cape federal building. For the full story, go to stltoday.com. But here are two sections of the story worth reading. (Try not to choke on the number of "homeless" -- just waiting for his services -- Rice suggests is in Cape Girardeau alone.)

A DRASTIC NEED?

[Larry] Rice believes there is a massive, unreported and underserved population of homeless people spread across 22 counties in southeastern Missouri.

In his application to take the federal building, he suggests that almost 2,200 people in Cape Girardeau alone may be homeless or in cramped living quarters with family or friends.

He says a homeless census in the winter of 2008 reported by the Missouri Housing Development Commission "woefully underestimated" the homeless situation. That point-in-time count found 92 people either in homeless programs or out on the street in all of Cape Girardeau County.

Rice estimates he could offer all manner of services -- emergency shelter, basic supplies, food, job training and transitional housing -- to more than 1,000 people.

"This is a drastic need that is unmet," Rice said.

But since the proposal became public, [Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay] Knudtson says, he has heard daily from business owners and city residents in opposition to the homeless shelter. The quaint residential neighborhood to the south would suffer, he said, as would the historic downtown. Churches and businesses that have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations would see property values fall. Filling the vacant storefronts that remain would be impossible, opponents argue.

"On Broadway, we really need to see the investors and the developers," said Sam Alsmadi, who owns a Mediterranean restaurant half a block from the old courthouse. "That won't happen if there's a homeless shelter just down the street."

UNDERUTILIZED SERVICES

The homeless service providers themselves provide the strongest objection to Rice's conclusions about the need. They note that streets lack the visible signs of widespread urban poverty -- panhandlers and people who bed down on park benches.

Meanwhile, local shelters have empty beds. The Revival Center, in nearby Jackson, Mo., currently has about 40 residents with room for 100 more in its shelter and treatment program, said Joyce Hungate, the center's president. Likewise, Vision House, in Cape Girardeau, which serves addicted women, has a steady stream of clients but hardly is overflowing, said executive director Theresa Taylor.

The organizations say Rice is misguided about conditions in the Cape Girardeau area. They suggest that he would do better to collaborate with local organizations, rather than blow into town with his own agenda.

"There is a safety net here. There are ministries among the homeless and among the poor. It might not be perfect, but there is a spirit of cooperation," said the Rev. Ron Watts, pastor at La Croix United Methodist Church, one of the largest churches in the area. "It basically feels like he is parachuting in, dropping in and doing his own thing."

Rice dismisses criticism from social service providers. He says they're either missing the invisible homeless or simply caving to pressure from local officials. He argues the law is on his side and says he is willing to take the matter to court.


In other, happier, news: Artscape takes place again this weekend at Capaha Park. It promises to be a great time for the full family. The event is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. and run until 6 p.m. Activities include fine arts and crafts, a kid's art tent, petting zoo, kid's entertainment, storytelling, and the annual street painting festival. Live music starts at 3 p.m. and continues through the evening, with the last band kicking off at 6:45 p.m.

Among the featured performers is Kim Dahme, who also headlines Tunes at Twilight tonight at the Common Pleas Courthouse Park (one block from Rice's targeted federal building). Let's hope the storms work their way through the area quickly.

jrust@semissourian.com;

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