Kevin McDermott, City, Rev. Rice go to mediation Wednesday over downtown homeless shelter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Rev. Larry Rice says he will propose a settlement Wednesday with St. Louis city officials in the on-going fight over his downtown homeless shelter, suggesting either that the city sanction occupancy of up to 275 people at the existing facility, or give him title to a different building to continue operations.

If the city doesn’t agree to one of those two ideas in Wednesday’s mediation session—and Rice acknowledged today that there’s little to indicate it will—he intends to press on with a federal lawsuit alleging that the attempt to shut him down is an unconstitutional violation of his religious freedom.

“We literally will have no choice but to fight” if the city pursues its order that he scale back the facility to just 32 occupants, Rice said in a news conference today at the facility. “We want to good citizens, but we must remain true to the calling that God has given us.”

Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center is locked in an on-going legal battle with the city, which has demanded that he either close the facility or scale it back to the 32 people allowed in its original permit, which dates to the 1970s.

The walk-in homeless shelter is in a sprawling old dark-brick building at 14th and Locust streets, in a once-desolate urban enclave now pulsing with high-end restaurants, refurbished loft condos and a busy night life.

The shelter currently takes in 225 to 250 homeless people per night—a situation that downtown residents say has spawned crime, lewd behavior and other problems.

Rice maintains he has done as much as possible to minimize problems, some of which he says are caused not by the homeless but by the nightly influx of bar patrons.

Mayor Francis Slay’s administration says New Life does little to rehabilitate the homeless, and that an increase in city-operated homeless facilities this year can handle the overflow if the facility closes or is scaled back.

Rice argued that point today, saying demand at the shelter is as high as ever despite the availability of new city-run beds.

Rice in March filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the city’s actions against the facility, arguing that closing it would end a “40-year religious mission.” The suit claims the city’s actions violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the First and 14th Amendments, the Missouri Constitution and the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Though Rice’s suit is based primarily on constitutional freedom-of-religion grounds, he reiterated today another argument that he has made before on the issue: “The homeless were here first.”

The city in April agreed to a temporary stay of its order against the shelter, allowing the facility to remain open as usual until October 15.

Rice and city officials will meet in closed-door, court-ordered mediation Wednesday in Clayton to try and reach an agreed settlement.

“If negotiations fall down tomorrow, then we’re off to court,” said Rice.

A city spokesperson said Tuesday the administration won’t comment on Rice’s suggested settlement because it hasn’t been presented yet.

“We do stand by what we’ve said all along: Either take your occupancy down to 32, or apply for a new permit” seeking approval to allow more people, said the spokesperson, Maggie Crane.

She reiterated the city’s allegation that Rice hasn’t even attempted to make his case for a larger occupancy through the proper channels of the permit process. “We have compelled him to be a good neighbor,” she said. “He has done nothing to work with us on it.”

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