The Nation's Pulse

Mean Streets

The do-gooders battle the urban pioneers.

By 12.1.08

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ST. LOUIS -- It is not unusual for me to get hit up for change a half dozen times between the time I leave my downtown office to grab a bite to eat and return. The record is ten. By and large, these panhandlers are not the noble economic victims the mainstream media likes to romanticize on the six o'clock news -- the formerly middle class two-parent families whose jobs were lost due to cruel free market policies and whose homes were taken away by greedy, predatory bankers. Rather they are largely single men with chronic drug and alcohol habits, and a miscellany of mental illnesses. A few are unregistered sex offenders, others prone to violent attacks, and some can be found standing on street corners cursing the principalities of the air and scaring the Dolce & Gabbana suits off of young female associates.

Downtown is also crowded with young urban pioneers who, at least until the recent economic downturn, were settling here in droves. After being pronounced dead in the 1970s, downtown has returned to life due largely to state historic rehabilitation tax credits. Two grocery stores and a brand new bookstore are opening, and soon a ballpark village housing restaurants, shops and high-end condos. For the first time in decades, the city has seen an uptick in population, due largely to these loft-dwellers.

All of these new homeowners, however, present a dilemma for the Democratic mayor's office. How to pretend to be compassionate toward those "unfortunate person[s] caught in the horrible cycle of poverty," and, at the same time, make downtown a desirable place for the young, taxpaying, creative class to live? How to strike a balance between basic civil liberties for street persons, and important issues of quality of life, public health and safety? Thus far the balance has tipped in favor of the homeless. When the mayor's office had police crackdown on vagrants before the popular Fourth of July celebrations in 2004, it was sued in federal court. The case was eventually settled with the city agreeing to pay some two dozen homeless men $1,200 each.

The homeless weren't a problem for previous administrations since few taxpayers lived downtown. Business executives ventured outside their office towers only at lunch hour and in the safety of packs. Then the tax credits kicked in and developers began buying up and rehabbing abandoned buildings, and, finally, the ultra-progressive loft-seekers arrived. Their compassion and pity for the homeless, however, lasted about as long as Britney Spears' marriage.

Suddenly the homeless were a serious problem. It wasn't just the aggressive, threatening panhandling. It was more the public urination, the public drunkenness, the way the homeless passed out in the doorways of multi-million dollar loft buildings, and the drug dealing in downtown parks. The homeless congregated in the downtown area because that was where one found the city's one major homeless shelter -- the New Life Evangelistic Center. St. Louis's main business district long ago migrated from downtown to Clayton, in St. Louis County, but you will find no homeless there, since office space is at a premium, and panhandling is actively frowned upon.

New Life is a queer amalgamation of things. It is a mission, a television and radio station, a church, and a dilapidated homeless shelter. It doesn't do any of these things well. New Life is run by the creepy Lutheran preacher and perennial candidate for Missouri governor, Larry Rice. The Rev. Rice operates 11 television stations, nine radio stations and 23 homeless shelters in the U.S. with operations overseas in India, Nigeria and Haiti. According to records filed in federal court, his nonprofit has assets between $40-50 million, plus $5 million in disposable assets. His businesses are run largely by the homeless who work long hours and are unpaid. As Rice told one reporter, "A paycheck does not solve people's problems." To make a few bucks they are forced to panhandle, which Rice encourages, since its increases the visibility of the poverty problem.

Meanwhile most St. Louisans support the Rev. Rice -- as long as he keeps his vagrants downtown and off their well-manicured suburban lawns. They might even give a panhandler a buck or two, but their compassion ends there. Any attempt to build a homeless shelter in the suburbs would be met with howls. And these suburbanites have even less compassion for the downtown loft-dwellers, some of whom are attempting to get New Life designated a "detriment to the neighborhood" and shut down. They knew what they were getting into when they moved downtown, the suburbanites say, the implication being that downtown is the homeless's territory. If you don't like drug addicts, public drunkenness, public urination, etc., buy a condo in the 'burbs.

THERE ARE SIGNS that popular opinion may be shifting. News of violent attacks has begun leaking out of the homeless shelter. In the past year there have been reports of a chainsaw attack, a rape, a murder and several violent beatings in Rice's shelters. The local alternative weekly is full of letters from readers demanding to know what professional qualifications Rice and his homeless staff have to care for the non-spiritual needs of addicts and the mentally ill.

Rice himself seems oblivious to the criticism. As he told the Riverfront Times, it is only he and his courageous staff standing between the general populace and "people turned away from other places." "You'd think maybe the loft-dwellers would recognize that and not shoot themselves in the foot. Without us here these people would be sleeping in the parks and on the loft-dwellers' doorsteps."

Of course, what the homeless desperately need are professional rehabilitation services and mental health care, and for well-meaning, but misguided citizens to stop subsidizing their self-destructive behavior. This can best be accomplished in mental health facilities, not in a television station/homeless shelter/campaign headquarters.

Unfortunately, most addicts and most mentally ill persons are in no condition to check themselves into such facilities. And a series of 1970 court decisions prohibited involuntary commitment unless a person was found to be a danger to himself or to others. At the same time, vagrancy laws were struck down in order to encourage alternative urban lifestyles and to celebrate a diverse street life. According to the National Mental Health Information Center, in 1969 state and county mental hospitals housed 369,969 patients; in 2002 that number was down to 52,612. A good percentage of mentally ill are doing well as outpatients, but if there seem to be more "crazy people out there" than before deinstitutionalization, it is because there are.

This has created to an advantageous niche for quacks like the Rev. Rice. As for the homeless, "Hundreds of thousands of the deinstitutionalized mentally ill have died prematurely from accidents, suicide, or untreated illnesses," noted Dr. E. Fuller Torrey in City Journal. "All too frequently, the consequences of this failed social experiment have been tragic and fatal." A local blogger put it more bluntly: "How many more people have to die and lie in hospital until Larry realizes that his organization does more harm than good?" But then the principle "first do no harm" would be foreign to witchdoctors and mountebanks.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.