The Saint Paul Planning Commission on August 20 will review a proposed set of rules that would regulate where facilities serving homeless people may be located. The commission’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee revised the regulations on August 10 following months of study. The new regulations are intended to increase access to homeless services and reduce the barriers preventing smaller homeless facilities from opening across the city, according to city planning director Luis Pereira.

Under the proposed regulations, homeless facilities would be classified as civic and institutional uses. They would be permitted by right in the three most intensive business zones and in industrial zones. No additional review would be needed. Homeless facilities would be limited to a maximum of 7,000 square feet in these zones without a conditional use permit. There would be no limit on the number of homeless clients served at each facility.

Homeless facilities of up to 5,000 square feet would be permitted in the mixed-use Traditional Neighborhoods 2, 3 and 4 zones. Facilities larger than 5,000 square feet in those zones would be permitted with a conditional use permit.

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The Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee recommended against the requirement that homeless facilities be located within a short distance of overnight or emergency shelters for homeless people.

The City Council needs to adopt a set of zoning regulations for homeless facilities if they are to be allowed in Saint Paul. Last November, the Freedom House homeless day shelter was allowed to open in a former fire station at 296 W. Seventh St. under an emergency ordinance. However, the emergency ordinance will only be in place as long as the city is under emergency orders tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freedom House
Freedom House client Richard Howell took a break on the sidewalk in front of the West Seventh Street shelter on a cold day last April. Photo by Casey Ek

 Under the proposed regulations, Freedom House would need to relocate or apply for a conditional use permit to remain at that site.

Complaints proliferate around Freedom House

The West Seventh/Fort Road Federation met with West End neighbors in July to discuss the zoning issues related to homeless facilities. West End residents and business people have complained about widespread public intoxication, drug use, vandalism, and public urination and defecation attributed to the clients of Freedom House.

“The neighborhood supports the existence of homeless service centers, but feels that the Freedom House site is not a good fit for these services at the level of demand that is currently present,” said Dana DeMaster, president of the West 7th Federation board.

The federation has suggested that if the proposed zoning regulations are to be instituted, certain issues should be addressed in any conditional use permit. They include measures to ensure public safety, adequate oversight, and alternatives to calling the police when problems arise.

Federation officials have also complained about litter around Freedom House. The federation is asking that the city do a better job of enforcing existing regulations regarding property maintenance and criminal activity in relation to Freedom House. The federation is also concerned about the possible concentration of homeless services and how that would affect the entertainment district along West Seventh.

Saint Paul Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher informed the City Council earlier this month about the progress that has been made in getting homeless people into overnight shelters. Over the past several months, city staff have closed more than 65 homeless encampments. There are still about 17 encampments that city officials know about.

— Jane McClure

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