Services for Saint Paul’s homeless population made great strides with the recent launch of a day shelter in Saint Paul’s West End neighborhood and plans for the March opening of an overnight shelter for homeless families in Highland Park. Still, at least 150 people continue to live outdoors in the city.

That number is about half of what it was at the beginning of winter, and eight of the city’s largest homeless encampments have been cleared. City and county officials cited safety hazards as they cleared the camps, especially the danger of fires caused by propane heaters or burning wood. One woman died and another woman was injured in a January fire at a homeless camp along Shepard Road.

Everyone living in camps that have been cleared has been offered shelter, according to Ricardo Cervantes, director of the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI). He leads the city-county group that has been meeting regularly to address the growing problem of homelessness locally.

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Three DSI staff members work full-time on homelessness issues. Two of them regularly visit the more than 50 known camps across Saint Paul. The intent is to get people into shelters, Cervantes said.

The provision of new shelter beds at Bethesda Hospital, the former Luther Seminary and various hotels has given the city what appears to be a surplus of overnight accommodations for the homeless. However, many people continue to live outdoors by choice, citing their distrust of shelters, their fear of becoming ill and other reasons.

The recent opening of Freedom House as a day shelter in the former Fire Station 1 at 296 W. Seventh St. filled a big need for the city’s homeless, according to Cervantes. “It’s a wonderful service,” he said.

fire station
Freedom House’s new day shelter for the homeless occupies a former West Seventh Street fire station.

Freedom House is open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, providing a place for people to relax, take showers, sleep, get clean clothes and have snacks and coffee. The homeless people there are able to meet privately with staff and social workers, and storage is provided for personal belongings.

Discussion at a January 26 virtual meeting hosted by the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation and Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker suggested that operations at Freedom House have been going smoothly for the most part. The biggest challenge for the nonprofit shelter thus far has been an excessive amount of trash, according to interim executive director Molly Jalma.

Freedom House’s sister facility, Listening House in Dayton’s Bluff, has cut down on its trash by using washable mugs and dishes. However, disposable items are being used during the pandemic. A dumpster was brought in to address that problem at Freedom House.

The Highland District Council’s Community Development Committee has recommended the approval of a conditional use permit for a new overnight shelter for homeless families at 1881 Randolph Ave…. The Provincial House shelter would be operated by Interfaith Action’s Project Home in partnership with Ramsey County and others.

Another pandemic-related issue is the growing need for volunteers at Freedom House and Listening House. Listening House had many volunteers before the pandemic, and while they are slowly coming back, both shelters have a shortage.

Jalma has fielded complaints about people loitering outside Freedom House and pounding on the windows of nearby businesses. She encourages local residents and business people to call Freedom House if they have any concerns. .

The Highland District Council’s Community Development Committee has recommended the approval of a conditional use permit for a new overnight shelter for homeless families at 1881 Randolph Ave. The permit for the shelter in the Sisters of Saint Joseph’s former Provincial House will be reviewed by the Saint Paul Planning Commission later this month.

The Provincial House shelter will be operated by Interfaith Action’s Project Home in partnership with Ramsey County and others. One of its goals is to get families into permanent housing. The average stay for families in Project Home is currently 43 days.

Project Home has long operated on a rotating basis at places of worship, schools and other facilities. Those facilities typically accommodate up to 20 individuals, and two facilities have been available each month. However, Project Home’s family shelter moved into a hotel last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now seeking a permanent location. Approval of Provincial House as a permanent Project Home shelter would mean needing just one other location each month.

— Jane McClure

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