McCaskill weighs in against New Life in federal courthouse debate

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill jumped into the debate over using the old Cape Girardeau federal building as a homeless shelter, urging rejection of the application from New Life Evangelistic Center.

In a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, McCaskill, D-Mo., asked that Sebelius ensure a detailed review of the application, which McCaskill wrote should lead to rejection of the proposal.

The New Life Evangelistic Center, a ministry founded by the Rev. Larry Rice, has asked that it be given the building to use as a transitional program for homeless families and veterans, an emergency shelter for transient homeless and to operate a free store for the needy. Rice has said the shelter he envisions would serve 125 people annually in transitional housing, or about 40 to 50 at any one time.

The 47,000 square-foot courthouse, at 339 Broadway, was declared surplus and offered as a potential site for homeless services in February. Most agencies have moved to the new Rush H. Limbaugh Sr. Federal Courthouse or other locations. Rice's application put a roadblock in front of an attempt by Cape Girardeau County to obtain the building as a replacement for the Common Pleas Courthouse.

In her letter, McCaskill said the building is too large for the problem in Cape Girardeau, that local agencies are working well together to serve the homeless population that is present in the city and united local opposition should be part of the department's consideration.

"I believe this facility is inappropriate for the proposed use by the NLEC, particularly in light of its size and location," McCaskill wrote. "Most importantly, I believe that the application of the NLEC to obtain this building does not meet legal requirements for a transfer of the property for the proposed use."

In the New Life application, Rice's ministry said Missouri Housing Development Commission surveys showed 48 unsheltered homeless people living in the county in 2008 and suggested that, under broader definitions of homeless, there may be as many as 2,200 homeless people in Cape Girardeau. That shows a need, Rice said last week, and he's trying to use an available building to provide for those needs.

"All I am trying to do is get people to follow the law when it comes to federal property," Rice said.

Sebelius's department has responsibility for reviewing the application. Rice submitted the New Life application on May 4 and the department has 25 days to make a decision. In response to submitted questions, a department spokesman, Michael Robinson, said that short time limits the department's evaluation to information in the application.

"The regulations do not provide for solicitation of the public's views of applications," Robinson wrote.

Asked whether the department attempts to verify information contained in the application, Robinson wrote: "HHS makes every effort to ensure that its determinations are objective, accurate, and well researched."

McCaskill's letter adds weight to the Congressional opposition to Rice's plan that has been developing as local leaders appeal for help to stop the application. U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., has urged the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reject the application and sponsored a new provision of federal law that took effect in March requiring a detailed review of agencies like New Life that apply for federal surplus property. U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, also has said she is opposed to the creation of a shelter at the courthouse.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

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Pertinent addresses:

339 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, Mo.

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