Kathy Gosiger was preparing for a busy evening as general manager of Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub when a young man walked in with a backpack and a skateboard. Backpacks are not allowed in the pub. Gosiger told the man he would have to leave the pack elsewhere. The man became aggressive and began shouting at Gosiger. He walked out the door, but before leaving the premises, he paced back and forth on the sidewalk cursing and threw a lit cigarette at the window and his skateboard at the building.

Scenes like this have become a frequent occurrence at Tom Reid’s and other nearby businesses since Freedom House opened last winter in a former fire station at 296 W. Seventh St. A drop-in day shelter for homeless people, Freedom House is operated by the nonprofit Listening House. Residents and business people in the area regularly happen upon used syringes, garbage and human feces littering the area, according to Patricia Salkowicz, president of the nearby Art Farm advertising agency. Panhandling, public urination and vagrancy are other regular complaints.

Saint Paul City Council member Rebecca Noecker, whose Ward 2 includes the neighborhood around Freedom House, said the day shelter is likely there to stay despite the complaints. According to her, the city worked with Listening House on dozens of possible locations for Freedom House before settling on the former fire station. “I think it’s the right kind of service in the right place at the right time,” Noecker said.

When asked about plans to address the complaints, Noecker said the city is investing “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in new community street teams who will direct visitors through the area, flag dangerous or disturbing behavior and pick up trash. She expects the teams to be deployed sometime in May following training.

That may not be soon enough for Gosiger, who has already hired private security in the wake of increased crime in the vicinity of Tom Reid’s. The pub’s security cameras have captured footage of violent assaults and public defecation on the sidewalk.

 

Noecker said it may not be possible to resolve the problems around Freedom House to everybody’s satisfaction. While complaints outnumber the accolades for Freedom House, she has heard from residents and business people who are happy to have the shelter in their area. “That would be my ideal,” Noecker said, “that (Freedom House) is accepted as a part of the community network.”

Representatives of businesses along West Seventh were scheduled to meet with city officials last week to discuss the problems related to Freedom House’s clients. Gosiger is worried that the situation might devolve. “It’s starting to really make me nervous,” she said.

 

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Representatives of Freedom House would not respond to requests for comment. However, Richard Howell, who frequents the day shelter, said it provides a critical lifeline for people like him. Howell will often grab a meal and take a shower at Freedom House before spending his day on the streets. “Freedom House saved my neck,” he said. “It’s in the right spot because it’s where the people are.”

Listening House has been providing shelter and other resources for people experiencing homelessness or other crises for 37 years. After losing its downtown location to redevelopment, it moved into First Lutheran Church in Saint Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. Neighbors there complained about disturbances, and when the city imposed operating restrictions in response to those complaints, Listening House filed suit.

Freedom House was meant to replace the public libraries and recreation centers where many of Saint Paul’s homeless people sought shelter before those facilities were shuttered by the pandemic. It is open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, providing food, water and clothing for those experiencing homelessness.

Freedom House
A client of Freedom House, Richard Howell takes a break in front of the former West Seventh Street fire station that has been turned into a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Photo by Casey Ek

Noecker said it may not be possible to resolve the problems around Freedom House to everybody’s satisfaction. While complaints outnumber the accolades for Freedom House, she has heard from residents and business people who are happy to have the shelter in their area. “That would be my ideal,” Noecker said, “that (Freedom House) is accepted as a part of the community network.”

Rhonda Otteson, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Homeless, of which Listening House is a member, said she is lobbying state legislators to allocate $50 million in capital funding to expand shelters and other resources for homeless people. The measure, Otteson said, would be a crucial step in solving homelessness statewide.

“The more resources a shelter has, the more effective it can be at moving folks into permanent shelter,” Otteson said. “This is a statewide problem, and it takes everybody coming together to solve the problem.”

— Casey Ek

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