Homeless Headlines Follow Same Old Cycle. When Will St. Louis Learn?

Tony Messenger October 8, 2023
Metro Columnist

ST. LOUIS — Never get in a headline fight with the Rev. Larry Rice.

You will not win. Especially if you’re a mayor.

Mayor Tishaura O. Jones learned the lesson last week, as Rice elevated homelessness to the front page by encouraging an encampment on City Hall grounds, outside the mayor’s office.

The mayor pulled out the old playbook of being patient, then trying to clear the camp under the cover of darkness, then backing off when activists and cameras showed up, then clearing the camp the next day, and then blaming Rice and the activists.

She didn’t win. Nobody did.

And that’s Rice’s strategy every time.

Former Mayor Lyda Krewson learned this lesson. Mayor Francis Slay learned this lesson. So did former Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman, and former Springfield Mayor Tom Carlson.

I’m in my third decade of covering Rice’s antics — and his good works, specifically for the homeless population. I’ve come to a more nuanced view of the TV evangelist who once ran for governor and has provided shelter for unhoused people across Missouri for longer than I’ve lived here.

At first, I saw him mostly as a troublesome character. In Columbia, where I worked about 20 years ago, he ran a homeless shelter that was often a dangerous, overcrowded fire trap. People died of drug overdoses and violence. There were constant problems.

At one point, I wrote a column about Rice the landlord, as he broke most of the rules he espoused. He had leases that required renters to display his political signs. He evicted poor people from mobile homes he owned in New Bloomfield, under questionable circumstances.

More often than not, in Columbia, Springfield and St. Louis, Rice was the guy wearing the black hat when I wrote a column about him.

But this is also true: Through his unorthodox playbook, Rice does more than any activist, service provider or politician to elevate the issue of homelessness. On balance, I think he does more good than harm.

When he stood in Columbia with Councilwoman Almeta Crayton to demand attention to the city’s most vulnerable residents, people paid attention. When he stands with U.S. Rep. Cori Bush or Alderman Rasheen Aldridge in St. Louis, he does the same thing.

There are people who believe shelter from Rice saved their lives. There are others who say that after having been in his shelter, they’d rather sleep under the stars, no matter the elements.

I believe that for all his failings, Rice truly cares about the fate of unhoused people. I believe most mayors, including Jones, also do. But as a society, we continually fail that population by not investing enough in housing, by not sustaining those investments, and by not finding a way to tackle the issue with a unified front.

That’s why Rice is able to outflank mayors and drum up negative headlines for them — until the latest camp is cleared and people move on, and the issue moves to the back burner.

There is a better way.

I have been writing for months about the serious attempt by nonprofit providers of homeless services, as well as key business leaders, to change the process by which those services are delivered in St. Louis. A new group called House Everyone STL won a bid from the providers to take over management of the services as an umbrella organization. That includes serving a role the city government has long served, as the conduit for federal funding.

The city has slow-played the move, at times objecting to the change or letting the wheels of bureaucracy grind to a halt. The latest spat with Rice should help the mayor see a great benefit in the move.

Rice vs. Mayor is always a losing proposition because Rice has the backdrop of the unhoused population, even if he’s using some of them as props.

Rice vs. The People Who Actually Shelter Unhoused People is a different fight. The mayor and the business community can be on the winning side of that battle, supporting people doing the heavy lifting in the trenches.

The model isn’t perfect; no model to battle homelessness is. But it’s better than the rinse-and-repeat cycle, which has plagued the last three mayors of St. Louis and will continue to do so until we try something different.

Eddie Roth, who used to manage homeless services for the city under Slay, once told me, “The way to do better than Larry Rice is to do better than Larry Rice.”

It was good advice, yet to be followed.