Some call for more conditions on places like Freedom House

Freedom House
Located in an old fire station at 296 W. Seventh St., Freedom House has become part of Saint Paul's long and complicated effort to help people who lack shelter. Photo by Casey Ek

Day shelters for homeless people could more easily operate throughout Saint Paul under proposed zoning changes that the city’s Planning Commission will consider on August 20. The changes could also reduce the demands on the Freedom House day shelter that is now operating in a former fire station at 296 W. Seventh St.

The behavior of clients at Freedom House—including public urination and defecation, drug and alcohol use, theft and vandalism— have roiled the surrounding West End neighborhood for months. More than 80 people attended a meeting hosted by the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation outside the Palace Recreation Center on July 14 to discuss the commission’s potential zoning changes.

Ideas raised during the sometimes raucous meeting will become part of the federation’s recommendations to the commission. The recommendations could also shape a future conditional use permit for Freedom House, which opened late last year.

Suggestions ranged from adding stricter operating conditions to 24-hour neighborhood security to property tax breaks for affected businesses and homeowners. Others asked that city officials work more closely with homeless people. Some neighbors wanted Freedom House closed down, criticizing how it is operated.

   

Pat Salkowicz of Art Farm Advertising, 310 Sherman St., brought two trash bags and a small plastic bag of syringes and pipes used to smoke methamphetamine to the July 14 meeting. Holding up the bags, she said, “This is just from Monday.” She and other business owners and residents said the trash and behavior of Freedom House clients are contrary to efforts to promote the Seven Corners area as a city gateway and event destination.

The ordinance would allow new day shelters to operate within half a mile from overnight shelters.

Others said that if Freedom House is to stay, more regulations are needed for it to operate in a way that is equitable to its guests and to neighbors. “We need to ask, ‘How is Freedom House helping everybody?’” said neighbor Ben Vigdal. He and others said their family members are afraid to leave their homes. “We need to set safety measures and not rush into a zoning study,” he added.

 

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Molly Jalma, executive director of Freedom House, said she attended the meeting to listen and talk to neighbors. She declined any further comment.

The controversy surrounding Freedom House is just a part of the city’s long and complicated effort to help people who lack shelter. The pandemic caused many overnight shelters to reduce their populations in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

The rise in homelessness spurred a huge uptick in encampments, which the city spent weeks clearing out and getting people into other shelters, including hotels and the former Bethesda Hospital. Saint Paul saw the number of unsheltered people jump from 26 in 2019 to 384 in 2020.

Day shelters like Freedom House provide people who are homeless with places to relax, shower, seek social services and get something to eat. Currently, overnight shelters can provide day services as an accessory use, but stand-alone day shelters are not allowed. The exception is Freedom House’s sister facility Listening House, which won a legal settlement with the city to occupy its site in a Dayton’s Bluff church.

Freedom House was allowed to open under a November 2020 emergency order tied to the pandemic. Without a zoning change to allow such facilities, Freedom House would have to close when the emergency ends. No date has been set for when that will occur.

The so-called homeless service facility ordinance was unveiled this spring and was the topic of two Planning Commission public hearings. The ordinance originally included a requirement that homeless service facilities be no closer than half a mile from an overnight shelter. That proposed restriction has been dropped, said Department of Safety and Inspections director Ricardo Cervantes, to free up more places for day shelters to operate in the city.

The facilities would be allowed in the downtown and other neighborhood commercial districts, in industrial areas and in areas zoned for traditional neighborhoods mixed uses. They would not be allowed in strictly residential districts. 

Day shelters that are smaller than 5,000 square feet could operate without conditional use permits. Larger facilities like Freedom House would be required to get permits, which can be used to set operating restrictions.

Those at the July 14 meeting disagreed on how to handle homeless service facilities under the proposed regulations. Some people wanted them concentrated in downtown, while others wanted them spread throughout the city.

If the City Council ultimately approves the zoning changes, the immediate impact would be to allow Freedom House to remain if it can obtain a conditional use permit. That would require a separate Planning Commission process.

— Jane McClure

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