PHOTO BY NICK SCHNELLE
The Rev. Larry Rice, center, says the city is fighting his efforts to reopen NLEC as a day center.
The Rev. Larry Rice says he is ready to file a new federal lawsuit if the city blocks his plans to open a daytime center for the homeless.
Rice's overnight shelter, New Life Evangelistic Center, was shut down in April after a long-running legal battle with the city. He's hoping to reopen the lower portion of the five-story building for day services — but says the city has refused to tell New Life what it needs to do to get an occupancy permit.
"If we don't have an answer by July 17, we have no other choice but to take them to federal court," Rice says.
New Life Vice President Rev. Ray Redlich has sent three letters, one every two weeks since June 1, to the city building commissioner, seeking answers. He says they're just trying to figure out what repairs they need to make.
"We want to get those things corrected, but they're not giving us answers as to what we need to do," Redlich says.
Attorney Todd Lubben, who represents the shelter, says that without that information, New Life could waste thousands on building repairs only to have the city block the permit.
When asked about the letters Wednesday, a city spokesman provided a copy of a letter dated June 29 — the day before Redlich says he sent his third letter — addressed to New Life from Building Commissioner Frank Oswald. However, the letter apparently never made it to New Life. It was sent by certified mail and no one was around to sign for it, according to the city.
In Oswald's letter, the building commissioner reminds Redlich that he has repeatedly asked New Life to direct inquiries to the city's attorneys. He doesn't provide any detail about repairs, but he does say the organization should file new permit applications for any proposed new uses, which answers one of New Life's questions.
Before it was forced to shut down, New Life was the city's largest homeless shelter. Rice operated the center for four decades in the 1400 block of Locust, often clashing with the city and neighbors in recent years as crowds of people who gathered along the sidewalk outside were blamed for rampant drug use, violence and petty crime
A 32-bed permit originally issued to New Life in 1976 was revoked in May 2015. The shelter continued to welcome a crowd of overnight guests, resisting a cease-and-desist order
issued in November before finally relenting in April.
Rice says the day center would provide meals and give people a safe place to hang out: "Just give people a place of refuge. A place to rest."
New Life needs an estimated $60,000 to $80,000 in repairs. Workers have vented basement showers and completed plumbing work, but sprinkler systems are still needed along with other fixes.
Rice says the long-term goal is to make any necessary repairs and reopen the entire facility, including a night shelter. To that end, he is also challenging the order that forced the shelter to shut down. Lubben, acting on behalf of New Life, is appealing a circuit court decision that would require the organization to gather signatures from neighbors to be considered for a new occupancy permit. Lubben and Rice have argued that New Life is exempt from signature requirement and that the city is infringing on the organization's rights to freedom of religion.
The appeal was filed Monday. City spokesman Koran Addo said the city would not comment on pending litigation.
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