BELLEVILLE — Led by St. Louis evangelist Larry Rice, a group of metro-east homeless advocates went to the St. Clair County Public Building on Thursday to put a referendum on the ballot that would push the city of Belleville to allow the old downtown YMCA to be turned into a homeless shelter.
Rice, operator of the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis, said Mayor Mark Eckert has refused to address the homelessness in Belleville. But Eckert said he is working with other county leaders in ongoing meetings on the subject.
He said he asked Rice to attend the meetings but the St. Louis-based homeless advocate has refused to come. Eckert accused Rice of holding publicity stunts to make himself look good instead of working earnestly to address the homeless issue.
Rice said he envisions re-purposing the former YMCA, also known as Turner Hall, as was done with the old YWCA in St. Louis.
"Leaders here have closed their hearts and minds to the needs of the homeless," Rice said. "We need to do whatever we can to try to solve this terrible problem."
Eckert did not attend Rice's event, instead sending a city employee with a clipboard to take down the evangelist's remarks. Eckert said he was tied up in meetings all day Thursday and urged Rice to come to meetings with leaders across St. Clair County who are looking for a place to put a homeless shelter. He said Rice seems to be motivated more by publicity for himself than finding real solutions to the problems of the poor.
Rice dismissed Eckert's suggestion, saying he didn't have time to go to a bunch of meetings because he's too busy trying to help the needy. And he said Belleville shouldn't try to push off its problems on the surrounding communities. Rice called the mayor's comments about his appearances being publicity stunts a "cheap shot."
Kevin Peals, a jobless Belleville resident, said divine inspiration caused him to call Rice to try to get the old YMCA turned into a homeless shelter and job training site. Peals wants to start a local chapter of Rice's group, Citizens United for Compassionate Government.
"God has brought me and Larry Rice together to push this message," Peals said. "We're here to fight the war against homelessness."
Belleville Ward 7 Alderman Phil Elmore, who plans to run against Eckert in the next mayoral election, said he doesn't think Rice's plans for Turner Hall have a chance to get off the ground.
"Everybody knows it's a vacant building and a problem property," Elmore said. "As great as (Rice's) idea sounds, it's completely unrealistic. I don't see where his ministry would have the financial resources to take on this project."
Elmore, who attended Rice's news conference in front of the old YMCA before the group headed to the courthouse, took exception to the evangelist's view that Belleville doesn't do enough to help its homeless and needy.
"It's disheartening," Elmore said. "I know of at least two food pantries we have in downtown Belleville. We have the Women's Crisis Center and our public school system does a phenomenal job taking care of homeless students and helping indigent families.
"I would like Rev. Rice to show us another town that provides for the needy as well as Belleville does."
St. Clair County Clerk Bob Delaney said it is possible to get a referendum on the April 2013 ballot on the question of whether the city should donate the YMCA building, but it wouldn't force the city to act even if it passed. Delaney said only the city government could put a binding referendum on the ballot which would force it to surrender a piece of property it owns. He said a citizen can't force the city to give up its property through a referendum.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2626.