Freedom House’s homeless clients may be back on street in May.

Freedom House, a day shelter for people who are homeless at 296 W. Seventh St., will close its doors when its lease expires in May. Its building could become a fire station again to meet the growing demand for fire and medical services in the area. Where that leaves the people who have been served by Freedom House for the past 15 months is not clear.

Freedom House opened in January 2021 as an extension of Listening House, a non- profit organization that operates a similar day shelter in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of Saint Paul. Freedom House has provided a place for people to relax during the day, nap, use showers and restrooms, and access an array of social services through partner agencies.

Freedom House
Richard Howell, a homeless client of Freedom House, took a break last spring outside of the former fire station at 296 West Seventh St. Photo by Brad Stauffer

However, the day shelter also drew complaints from local residents and businesses for being a source of unsavory behavior and crime. Open drug dealing and drug use, public urination and defecation, prostitution, theft and vandalism were all attributed to Freedom House clients.

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Several local businesses and residents filed suit against the city and Listening House last November seeking monetary damages and demanding that Freedom House be closed. The plaintiffs claimed that Freedom House encroached on their personal and property rights. They cited 105 incidents ranging from people bathing in the Irvine Park fountain to someone being chased by a person wielding a knife.

In late March, Ramsey County District Judge Patrick Diamond issued a temporary restraining order against Freedom House. The judge ruled that the city did not give proper notice of a public hearing in 2020 about the zoning change that allowed Freedom House to occupy the former fire station. The judge called for Listening House and the city to either find a new location for Freedom House or remedy the procedural error on the rezoning.

At recent meetings of the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation, Listening House staff members said they would like a new site for the services Freedom House provides. However, it would take several months to raise the necessary funds and secure a new location.

At recent meetings of the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation, Listening House staff members said they would like a new site for the services Freedom House provides. However, it would take several months to raise the necessary funds and secure a new location. Freedom House used the money it received through the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to open and operate on West Seventh, but that funding runs out soon.

“We were always aware that Freedom House was a short-term solution during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said City Council member Rebecca Noecker, whose Ward 2 includes the old fire station. Saint Paul saw large increases in the number of people living in outdoor encampments in 2020 and 2021. There were more than 400 campers citywide in the summer of 2020. That number declined to about 25 as of mid-March 2022.

Listening House and Saint Paul officials have indicated that they will abide by Judge Diamond’s order. “We continue to take the safety of our guests, staff, volunteers and community very seriously,” said Molly Jalma, executive director of Listening House. “And we thank all of our public and private partners who are committed to working with us on developing positive, long-term solutions for our city and all of its residents.”

“We’ve received the court’s order and are working to determine the next steps for the city,” said Saint Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson. “We remain committed to supporting safe day space, shelter and housing options for people experiencing homelessness.”

The attorneys for the plaintiffs at Winthrop and Weinstine declined to comment for this story. However, some of the relief sought in the lawsuit remains unresolved, including more than $50,000 in damages.

The future of Freedom House building

A decision also has yet to be made on the future of the West Seventh property. According to assistant fire chief Roy Mokosso, the Saint Paul Fire Department is considering reusing the building as a fully operational fire station.

The building was one of 16 fire stations in the city in 2010, Mokosso said. When a new fire station opened at West Seventh and Randolph Avenue more than a decade ago, the department closed another station on Randolph and renovated 296 West Seventh as a training facility.

“(Downtown’s Fire) Station 8 has been very busy as our run volume continues to grow in our most densely populated area,” Mokosso said. According to him, the best use of the former fire station is to staff it with full fire and emergency medical service personnel to support downtown and the Seven Corners entertainment district. Reopening the station would also reduce the need to pull fire and emergency medical services personnel out of surrounding neighborhoods when they are needed downtown, Mokosso said.

— Jane McClure

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