He wanted to explain that the park, with its homeless squatters and frequent police calls for public urination and intoxication, was no place for a child to play. Instead, Martello delivered a message he thought his son would better understand. "It's too dirty," he said.
When the boy asked his father to clean the park, Martello says he made a vow. "I'll clean it," he told his son. "But I can't do it today."
A month later, Martello, a gruff, 35-year-old software engineer with an affinity for caffeine, cigarettes and "solving problems," says he's discovered a way to rid downtown of the homeless he believes are ruining his neighborhood and the park. The solution, he says, lies in a little-known city code that allows residents to ask the city's Board of Public Service to strip the permits of any "rooming house, boarding house, dormitory or hotel" that constitutes a detriment to the neighborhood.
In Martello's mind, it's as if the city code were written explicitly to deal with the Rev. Larry Rice and his New Life Evangelistic Center. The regulation labels as a "detriment" any institution whose occupants engage in loitering, littering, public drinking, public urination and lewd conduct — especially when that property is located near a park, playground, school or church.
"When I read through the code I was like 'check, check, check and check,'" gleams Martello, who is convinced that Rice's New Life occupants are responsible for much of the panhandling and public urination occurring downtown. "If the majority of residents within 500 feet of the shelter sign the petition," says Martello, "then hopefully we can get the political support we need to eminent-domain his ass."
Since he began distributing the petition last week, Martello has been joined by dozens of other downtown residents and business owners fed up with what they see as a growing problem. "We've all been frustrated for so long," notes Howard Wynder, a Washington University scientist who moved downtown three years ago. "The cops are great, but they can't do enough," says Wynder. "And the elected officials don't want to get involved because it's too politically treacherous."
"It definitely seems to be getting worse," adds fellow loft-dweller Steve Kelly. "I can't tell you how many times I've witnessed people urinating in the park or on the corner of buildings. I don't mean to be callous to these people's need, but the fact is no other place in town would tolerate this."
Patricia Clark, a surgeon whose loft overlooks Lucas Park, says the situation has her thinking about moving away. "I'm exactly the kind of person the city and developers marketed this area to," comments Clark. "I'm affluent. I'm independent. I bought into the whole 'let's revitalize the city' idea. And what do I get? I'm paying an extra $7,000 in taxes to live downtown and be awakened by drunks screaming 'motherfucker' at each other all day long."
Worse still, says Clark, are the weekends when outside church groups show up to feed the poor in Lucas Park. "It's like a tailgating party for the religious," she says. "They set up these feeding stations and don't clean up any of the litter. It serves as a magnet for the homeless. I've even seen Larry Rice on his television station telling people that there is an urgent need to come down and feed these people. That's not true! There are already organizations here that provide that service."
Rice says he doesn't tell anyone to feed the homeless in the park. At the same time, he won't discourage people from doing it either. "Part of the essence of Christianity is to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and provide clothing for the naked," he says.
As for the petition, the reverend says he was unaware of the effort until reached for comment by Riverfront Times. "Caring people don't move into a neighborhood and then circulate a petition to drive out the people who already live there," he states. "It reminds me of the treatment of the American Indian."
Moreover, Rice asserts that his shelter actually reduces the number of homeless on the street by providing them a place to sleep at night and daytime classes and workshops designed to "break the cycle of homelessness." But shelter residents who aren't enrolled in classes are asked to leave New Life during the day to look for work. Martello — and others — believe many of those people end up panhandling along Washington Avenue or congregating in Lucas Park.
Recently, Martello has learned that at least three sex offenders considered "non-compliant" with the Missouri State Highway Patrol give their address as 1411 Locust — or New Life Evangelistic Center. He recalls, too, how in February an occupant inside New Life stabbed another homeless man to death.
"They are a danger to the people he has staying in the shelter, and they're a danger to the neighborhood when these people leave during the day," asserts Martello.
Rice acknowledges that many of his "guests" have troubled pasts but downplays their threat to anyone other than themselves. "We serve a lot of hurting people," he says. As for the sex offenders, Rice considers three to be a surprisingly low number. "The fact is, anyone can use our address," he says. "Maybe they did stay here a night or two. Who knows? But the authorities can always come and look if they want."
Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett, whose 6th Ward encompasses Washington Avenue and the New Life shelter (view map), says the petition puts her in an awkward position. "I'm sensitive to the concerns of my constituents, but at the same time you have to ask: Where would these people go if the shelter is closed? Right now, the city doesn't have the resources to provide for them."
In 2005 Mayor Francis Slay launched a ten-year plan to eliminate chronic homelessness in St. Louis by providing permanent housing to the poor as well as creating four drop-in "safe havens." To date, only two of those drop-in shelters have opened, and neither provides beds. By comparison, Rice's shelter usually sleeps 100 people in the summer and double that in the winter.
It remains to be seen if the petition asking the city's Board of Public Service to strip Rice of his permits will work. "It looks like the ordinance is available to petitioners," says BPS president Marjorie Melton. "That said, no one has presented a similar petition in my five years here. I've talked to people in the office who've been here twenty years, it's the first they've heard of it."
Martello, though, is confident that the law — if not God — is on his side. "I've got no problems with my neighbors so long as they're following the rules," he says. "But that hasn't been the case with the Rev. Rice and the homeless, and soon we'll have a thousand people signing their names in agreement. When that happens, we'll be impossible to ignore."