Application to use old Cape Girardeau federal building failed to meet four of five criteria

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Rev. Larry Rice on Monday renewed his threat to use the courts to force the federal government to turn over the Broadway federal building in Cape Girardeau for use by the homeless, a use that was rejected for failing four of five major standards.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent Rice a letter Friday detailing the problems it found in the New Life Evangelistic Center's application, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill announced. McCaskill's spokeswoman, Adrianne Marsh, said the senator was told the application failed four of the five criteria used for evaluations but not told which criteria passed and which failed.

Rice, in an interview Monday afternoon, said he will hold a news conference Thursday in Cape Girardeau to discuss exactly how he plans to challenge the decision. But he said he will pursue the building through the courts.

The old federal building at 339 Broadway (Fred Lynch)

"We weren't even given a chance to respond," Rice said. "I am not left any other option but to pursue it in this arena [the courts]."

Opposition to Rice's application galvanized city leaders, who organized a letter-writing campaign among civic groups, politicians such as McCaskill, U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, as well as religious groups and local providers of emergency and long-term shelter. Reaction to the decision focused on the oft-repeated assertion that the 47,000 square-foot office building was too big to use as a shelter, to difficult to convert and that a homeless shelter in that location would damage city plans for revitalizing the main commercial districts downtown.

Mayor Jay Knudtson said he received word that the application had been rejected Monday morning from both McCaskill and Bond's offices.

"My first reaction was ... I was thrilled to see the process work. From the very beginning this had been the Rev. Rice's right to apply for this building ... and it's been our duty to demonstrate that we are meeting the needs in Cape Girardeau, and to rally all the agencies that participate in that coalition [of helping the homeless]," Knudtson said.

Rice asked for the federal building at 339 Broadway after it was declared surplus property by the federal government. A new $62 million courthouse at 555 Independence Street has absorbed the court and Congressional offices once housed there and the Social Security Administration office has moved to new rented quarters. Other agencies are expected to move this year.

The rejection came in the first round of the review process by the Department of Health and Human Services. McCaskill had written to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking that the application be given a thorough review. McCaskill also urged that it be rejected.

"It's a good day when the concerns that reflect the needs of our local communities are heard and taken into account as it relates to public policy," McCaskill said in a news release issued Monday afternoon. "The Cape Girardeau courthouse was an inappropriate facility for the needs of the homeless in Cape Girardeau and I am glad that HHS recognized this when dealing with the issue on the merits. It's refreshing when Washington gets it right."

Under federal rules, Rice had to explain the services he planned to provide and that the community needed the services. He also had to show that the time needed to start his programs was reasonable, that he had the experience needed to perform the work he proposed and that his organization had financial strength to handle the work.

The reasons given for rejecting his application, Rice said, were that his plan did not include enough staffing, that the community need was not great enough for the building's size, and that he intended to take too long to start his programs. The department also rejected New Life's application based on finances, saying the organization does not have the resources needed to support the programs it described.

On all four points, Rice said the federal evaluation was wrong. During past applications for buildings in St. Louis and Springfield, Mo., Rice said he was able to provide clarification and additional information when reviewers did not fully understand his answers.

Because he relies heavily on volunteers recruited from the ranks of the homeless to operate his programs, he did not include that help as part of the staffing. Only plans for paid staff were detailed, he said, and that caused him to fail on the issue of experience.

The community need will be demonstrated Thursday, he said, when he presents local supporters of his idea to counter the opposition.

The speed he said he intended to start the programs is a matter of meeting local building and zoning codes, Rice said. Experience has taught him that can take up to two years.

Finally, he said New Life has strong finances. While it relies heavily on in-kind donations of goods and services, the ministry has about $3.6 million in annual income and about $5.3 million in assets. About 15 percent of New Life's revenue comes from broadcast stations, and Rice said in an interview May 19 that he would forego spending to upgrade some low power stations to digital transmissions if the money was needed in Cape Girardeau.

The local opposition was a cruel exercise, turning the city against the homeless in an effort to thwart him, Rice said. "Instead of blasting the messenger, they should be looking at the need."

Rice founded the New Life Evangelistic Center in the 1970s. He operates shelters, free stores and broadcast stations throughout Missouri and in other states. Rice has been criticized for a go-it-alone approach to dealing with the homeless, while his supporters contend he has only the needs of the poor in mind.

New Life Evangelistic Center (NLEC) applied to be a tenant of the building under a law that allows buildings deemed as "excess property", like the federal courthouse, to be used as a homeless shelter, if the application is approved by HHS, McCaskill noted in a news release. In her letter dated May 14, McCaskill pointed out to HHS that the size and location of the building were inappropriate for such use and that for these reasons and others, the building didn't meet legal requirements for the transfer of the property.

Other Congressional actions against Rice's application included a letter from U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., asking that the Department of Housing and Urban Development take note of new legal requirements he inserted into federal law in March.

HUD would have been responsible for reviewing the application if HHS had approved it. Bond wanted an in-depth review of New Life's finances and programs by HUD before it gave approval if HHS had said Rice should have the building.

"After a thorough review, HHS shares the concerns of the local advocates and community leaders that this proposal fails to meet appropriately the needs of homeless in the Cape Girardeau area," Bond said in a statement issued Monday.

Knudtson called the decision "humbling validation" that the city's position -- that local agencies were already meeting the needs of the homeless and that the federal building was too large for the purpose Rice intended -- was the correct position. He said he wasn't sure if the city would join the fight against Rice in court, but that the city will "do what we have to do" to defend its position that the federal building is the wrong answer to the local homelessness problem. Now the city will assist Cape Girardeau County in its efforts to secure use of the building, Knudtson said.

Knudtson commended Rice for bringing the issue of homelessness to the forefront locally. The mayor said he's talked more about the issue in the past few weeks than he has over the past several years, and the city will continue the dialogue with local organizations.

"I believe the Rev. Rice ... to be a compassionate man, and if succeeding in heightening the awareness and taking the dialogue of homelessness to another level was his ultimate objective, he clearly has achieved that goal," Knudtson said.

John McGowan, director of community impact for the United Way of Southeast Missouri, said he was pleased the rejection means there will not be a large homeless facility, attracting people from a wide region, that the city and service agencies cannot afford to support. He, too, said Rice had done the community a service by bringing issues concerning the poor and people losing homes due to job loss to the public.

"I am more pleased that the issue has been brought to the forefront and people with those problems in the community will be addressed," he said.

Southeast Missourian reporter Matt Sanders contributed to this article.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

339 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Map of pertinent addresses

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