” How we treat the vulnerable is how we define ourselves as a species.” ~Russell Brand
Last year winter I decided to produce a series of photo essays on the homeless population in downtown Saint Louis Missouri. One early Saturday morning I headed down to Loctus street near the new library and NLEC [New Life Evangelistic Center] where most of the less fortunate dwell. I had my photographer and son in tow; believing it is important to instill the value of life in children early I felt it was important that he be with me. We stopped to grab several cups of fresh coffee and some breakfast muffins to hand out to those individuals who consented to speaking with us.
Sheltered and somewhat green having grown up in middle class suburbia I was a little hesitant in actually approaching people and asking for an interview. The first person I approached was a woman sitting in front of the library, it was her smile and pleasant disposition amidst the chaos that initially made me choose her. After offering her a coffee we began to talk, her voice was soft and kind but her story was dark and sad. I learned that Kameshia, 41, was a current resident of NLEC [aka Larry Rice] after having lost her home in Illinois she was mother of two adult children. She smiled as she told me about her children who were in college and doing well, she spoke about her mother and a few other things. When questioned about her reason for being homeless it was her answer that surprised me, “Because I am living with a disease, it is called HIV.” She said very matter of fact. Diagnosed years ago after having sex with her first partner Kameshia has no form of healthcare, no support from the government and is in need of the necessary medications needed to live a somewhat healthy life. As she spoke I was inspired by her ability to have such a positive outlook and hold her head high with a smile. Her resilience despite her circumstances was heart warming. To end our conversation I asked her how she was able to remain in such a good place mentally, she looked to the sky and said “Because GOD is real.”
How often do we see people like Kameshia and walk right past them? Never giving them a second thought? Not once stopping to think that like us, she too is a person and has a story. Just like week I released a mild expose on the conditions of those living [and working] for Reverend Larry Rice at NLEC. ( click here if you missed that) While he is majorly responsible for the modern-day form of slavery he imposes on those who are less fortunate, he is not entirely at fault for the inhumane living conditions those living there are subjected to. For many years the city of Saint Louis and Larry Rice have battled over the homeless population being at 1411 Locust. The city argues that the presence of this facility does constitute an impediment to reasonable development, both commercially and residentially, therefore they are looking to revoke his occupancy permit which means he will not be able to house those in need. So what does this mean for the residents and those in need of emergency shelter? It means they will have to find somewhere else to turn to, granted the practices of the “Reverend” are questionable and completely barbaric but he provides a roof for those with no place else to turn. The city has to be held accountable for the deplorable condition of the facility. Because of the long-standing feud, the city will not allow Rice to obtain the permits needed to do repairs to his building. [You must have certain permits in order to perform the kind of work needed on the crumbling structure known as 1411 Locust] NLEC is not a federally or state funded agency so the city of Saint Louis has little to no say so in how the program is run, but they can block progress and or repairs as they have. However, the city argues that Rice signed an application to run a hotel; his notarized signature is an agreement that he would abide by the laws set by the city for hotel operation and according to the city he has not done so.
“We have protections under the Constitution. We are a church and we’re going to continue to follow Jesus Christ and not the Slay Administration.” ~Reverend Rice
According to a census conducted in 2013 by the Slay Administration there were 138 chronically homeless people in the city of Saint Louis. Now I don’t work for the census bureau but I don’t think that number is at all accurate, not when over 150 men sleep in the emergency shelter of the NLEC each night, not to mention the other 3 shelters located downtown. To help aid in the effort to end homelessness Slay kicked off The BEACH Project, “The Beginning of the End: Abolishing Chronic Homelessness.” The BEACH Project is to bring together federal, state and local government agencies, housing providers, faith-based organizations, non-profit agencies and businesses to aid those in need. I’m not exactly sure how you conduct a census on those without a home, but there are over 15,000 people living in transient without a stable home. By categorizing people as “chronic” allows the city to give what their definition of homeless is. Did you know that it is against the “law” set forth by the Health Department to pass out food to residents downtown? If you are caught doing so you will be given a citation and have to pay a fine. When did it become against the law to do a good deed? While I don’t agree with the practices of either side, I see the bigger picture. Do I believe Larry Rice needs to be shut down? Yes, if the city won’t allow him to make the necessary repairs. If he does not change his practices of modern-day slavery, then yes. Do I believe the city is doing anymore of service to those in need than the Reverend, no; they are just as much at fault as he is. The concerted efforts of the city are null because they are pretending the problem does not exist and trying to put a band-aid over it. Truth of the matter is, there is a problem and nobody wants to confront it. It seems to me that the fight between the city and Rice is one big pissing match, neither parties care about those in the center of the issue. The Homeless.
I realize I am only one person, one voice, one opinion. But if I can inspire one more person to stand up and speak change than I have done a good deed. I plan to attend the hearing on next week that will determine the fate of NLEC. I also plan on being a part of an effort to make 200 lunches to pass out this weekend. What will you do?
“The planet is being destroyed. We are creating an underclass. We are exploiting poor people all over the world and the legitimate problems of people are not being addressed by our political powers.”~Russell Brand