Months of debate came to an end on November 10 when the Saint Paul City Council unanimously adopted new zoning rules that allow daytime drop-in shelters for homeless people to open in neighborhoods throughout the city. The new rules were approved just days after seven businesses near Freedom House at 296 W. Seventh St. filed suit against the city because of problems related to that daytime drop-in shelter for homeless people.

Freedom House
An unidentified client took a break last spring outside of Freedom House, a homeless day shelter on West Seventh and Ramsey streets. Photo by Casey Ek

 

There have been no estimates of how many shelters will open citywide now that they are permitted in industrial zones, business zones and mixed-use business and residential zones. Most facilities could open without a public hearing. The exceptions are facilities of 7,000 square feet or more, which will require a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission.

“Homelessness and its challenges are unfortunately increasing as we approach another winter of the pandemic,” said Lorna Schmidt, public policy manager for Catholic Charities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. “The zoning changes will allow more organizations to offer much-needed services for individuals facing extreme hardships, and we’re encouraged by the opportunities they will provide.”

   

Freedom House, at about 17,000 square feet, will require a conditional use permit if it wishes to remain open long-term. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020, Mayor Melvin Carter and the City Council gave Freedom House emergency authorization to operate in what had been a fire station.

The drafting of the new zoning rules has been followed closely by nonprofit organizations that serve homeless people. Catholic Charities, which operates an array of housing facilities in downtown Saint Paul for people experiencing homelessness, supports the changes.

“Homelessness and its challenges are unfortunately increasing as we approach another winter of the pandemic,” said Lorna Schmidt, public policy manager for Catholic Charities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. “The proposed zoning changes will allow more organizations to offer much-needed services for individuals facing extreme hardships, and we’re grateful for and encouraged by the opportunities they will provide.”

 

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Taking the pressure off existing day shelters

Molly Jalma, executive director of Freedom House and Listening House in Dayton’s Bluff, said that the new rules could take the pressure off her two daytime shelters. However, she objected to some potential amendments and had lingering concerns about the double standards confronting homeless facilities and the people they serve.

“Rules are often based on perception or bias instead of the facts and the realities of people in need,” Jalma said, “rules that are created by housed people intending to continue pushing unhoused people further away. I’m asking that you as the City Council acknowledge this dynamic in the policy process and make it easier to help people in the most need.”

Amendments adopted before passage

The Minneapolis law firm of Winthrop and Weinstine, which is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over Freedom House, asked the City Council to consider requiring facilities to provide regular trash and litter pickup, transportation for clients leaving the facility and around-the-clock security with staff or cameras. The law firm also wanted the council to require daytime shelters to be located within a half mile of overnight shelters, a stipulation that had been removed by the Planning Commission.

The City Council did adopt several last-minute amendments introduced by council member Rebecca Noecker, whose Ward 2 includes Freedom House. The amendments require facilities to have a litter and trash collection plan and to appoint a contact person to address the concerns of local residents and business people and work with the local district council, the police and other stakeholders.

Noecker’s amendment to require facilities to have security plans was rejected. “The cost of security measures are great and should not impede an organization from being able to deliver its service,” Jalma said. “Cooperation with local law enforcement and neighborhood councils—yes, this makes sense. But an amendment to ensure the housed are safe from the unhoused via an unclear, expensive or unreasonable security plan is wrong.” Jalma said such a requirement would add to the criminalization of homeless people.

City Council member Jane Prince, whose Ward 7 includes Listening House, brought forward an amendment to allow up to 10 clients in a daytime shelter to stay overnight. Overnight clients would have to be referred to the day shelter by another agency, and the shelter would also have to be staffed overnight. Council member Mitra Jalali of Ward 4 argued for the removal of the 10-person limit to give shelters more flexibility especially in the event of a winter weather emergency.

The City Council adopted Prince’s amendment for overnight accommodations with no limit on the number of beds.

— Jane McClure

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