Public service, as a construct, stretches beyond campaign slogans, stale stump speeches, and mailed propaganda. There is a distinct difference between a politician and a public servant. An effective leader immerses oneself within the community and walks amongst the people. That is where the true understanding is cultivated and the work must be done.
As the 7th Ward Committeeman many of my constituents have come to me expressing concerns with the homeless population downtown. Time after time and neighborhood meeting after the next, that theme of frustration would reappear. One organization that has tried to bring support to the community is Reverend Larry Rice and the New Life Evangelistic Center (NLEC). NLEC is located at 1411 Locust Ave, St. Louis, MO and has been there since 1972.
The New Life Evangelistic Center (NLEC) came to the Downtown Neighborhood Association meeting to be come face to face with their neighbors. I had observed time and again where residents would complain with such vitriol towards the homeless population. It was often that no representative from Larry’s organization would be present. Finally seeing the conversation take place truly brought me some joy. I believe that it is better for people to work out differences and have come to the table for common ground. I knew one is that this meeting would be like no other. You can watch the meeting here.
While I can understand some frustration of both sides, I think the argument or the discussion should be more around what we can to do together to help some of St. Louis’ more vulnerable citizens. I understand the varying sides of the argument what is the word what can we do as want to come together.I would often hear elected officials and neighbors give opinions of the poor state of affairs at the center. In order to fully understand the state of the conditions one must venture to element. Anyone can sit behind a keyboard and give an opinion. Realizing that axiom, I set out to observe NLEC for myself. To be an effective public servant must put oneself in the shoes of the next person.
The Sleep Out to Speak Out rally was held on Saturday December 23, 2016. Though I had been to the Center before, I decided to sleep out that night. Arriving at the center I would observe the usual band of mayoral candidates passing through for their photo ops. I made a deliberate point to not be recognized; having obscured my face. I even left my cell phone at home; trading it for a small note pad. It rained nearly all day ultimately rendering my note pad useless.
It was a clear division that night. On one side you had news cameras, politicians, and on lookers. They were joined by millennial hipsters fitted with premium sleeping tents and winter coats. On the other side you had the same people I recognized as familiar faces at NLEC. People who were simply living their life and observing the awkward spectacle that was taking place across the street. Then you had me; dressed in a hoodie, light peacoat, and a face mask. I spent most of the night of talking to the homeless; gathering their perspective on NLEC.
It warmed my heart to see the unabated donations from the folks on the other side of the street and passersbies . You have to keep in mind the rally was occurring on the cusp of Board Bill 66. An ordinances that made it illegal to give donations to the homeless without having a permit.
As the night progressed the cameras left and the mayoral candidates went onward. All that remained were the folks that call NLEC home and a dedicated few. I turned in for the night near the bench with no blankets or cardboard. The temperature continued to fall just as the rain mist picked up. My body began to shiver against the concrete pavement. I thanked my Lord for the saint that laid tarps over me. The little warmth and comfort I received from them helped me tremendously. The most profound observation I experienced was looking up at the stars and the downtown St. Louis skyline. It’s very different falling asleep in an enclosed heated bedroom. Sleeping outside strips away all feelings of security and comfort. In that moment the City of St. Louis became my home. The city skyline became my bedroom ceiling and the view of central library, NLEC, and Confluence became my bedroom walls. The iridescent orange glow of streetlights coupled with the beaming US Bank sign became my night light. It was a feeling I had never experienced before.
As the night progressed I began to lose the feeling in my hands, toes and feet. I am not a quitter; the point of the rally was to experience life from the perspective of those who don’t have an option to simply go home. Another couple hours went by and at that point the weather was unbearable and the tarps weren’t doing anything. I figured I would go into NLEC to warm up a bit before returning to finish out the night. The pleasant NLEC workers were nice enough to offer me a pallet of blankets. I traded the concrete pavement for the NLEC concrete floor. I returned outside with the gloves lent to me by the NLEC staff. The gloves helped with my hands but I lost sensation in my toes and feet. It was near 4:30am and I decided to make my venture home. The Metrolink wasn’t running for another couple hours, no money for a cab, and I was without a cell phone. That night I was truly able to feel the benefit of the NLEC. Many people don’t know that I had gotten nerve damage that night from experiencing the beginning stages of hypothermia.
The City of St. Louis has scheduled the closure of the center on April 1st, 2016 . The problem that I see falls on every party. Larry Rice for not doing more to work with the City, The City for turning it’s back on its more vulnerable population, and us as neighbors for not empathizing. We all need to come together and not fall back on temporary solutions. Placing the burden back on the 12th & Park recreation center only shifts the burden. It places strain on the children who could benefit from expanded use of the facility. I can not foresee what the future holds for our recently displaced neighbors. On Tuesday, April 4th we will be ushering in a new era of government at 1200 market. I would like to challenge the new administration to take this issue serious. Citizens of this city are hurting and we need leadership in the Mayor’s Office and the Board of Alderman to address this issue.