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Minnesota
Saturday, January 28, 2023

What is Ramsey County doing to shelter the homeless now that winter is here?

This week, Ramsey County opened two new nightly warming homes for the homeless in St. Paul, at Newell Park and the Phalen Lakeside Activities Center, with little to no warning to nearby homeowners as cold weather is expected to hit the most vulnerable early this year.

Visitors to the St. Paul Opportunity Center run by Catholic Charities are entered into a lottery for emergency shelter beds at Higher Ground, and those who are unsuccessful in getting a bed there are directed to Safe Space, a sleeping area set up in the lower level of a county government building on Kellogg Boulevard. When capacity is reached at Safe Space, people are transferred to the warming houses by van.

The city’s Homeless Assistance Response Team, in collaboration with the county, developed a shuttle-based transportation plan. “It’s not about not being sympathetic to the area, but our first goal was to keep people safe and warm,” said Andrea Hinderaker, the team’s program coordinator.

‘The county was extremely precise,’ Hinderaker said. “People will have left by 6:30 a.m., far before the break of day. Lifesaving measures must sometimes be taken on the spur of the moment.

St. Paul authorities have loosened zoning regulations and set aside funding to develop temporary and permanent new facilities for the extremely poor, including housing and day shelters, but putting these plans into action has been more difficult than anticipated. There has been a wide range of responses to the citywide push to aid the homeless, from organized resistance to outspoken displays of support and volunteering.

Catholic Charities has extended the hours of its downtown Opportunity Center, a day site for the homeless, from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. to ensure a smooth transfer between shelters. to 9 p.m. nightly.

A 70-year-old guitarist named Rod “Hot Rod” Knutson claims he has been a resident of the Catholic Charities building in question since last April. He is just a recent transplant to the Twin Cities, having spent his formative years in Red Lake Falls, in northwest Minnesota. Just recently, he lost his home when the sober living facility he had been staying at was up for sale.

The center’s 32-bed “Focus Forward” specialty section shelters particularly vulnerable groups. “I believe it’s a fantastic thing to have for folks who need it,” said Knutson, a resident.

Dayton’s Bluff’s Listening House, which now operates out of a church, plans to expand its operations by moving into the former Red’s Savoy restaurant on the outskirts of downtown by the end of the winter.

Volunteers from St. Paul’s religious communities have started training with Listening House, the county, and other service providers in preparation for opening up their buildings as warming centers when the weather turns cold.

When the snow began falling in early December, the Reformation Lutheran Church on Oxford Street opened its doors to local youngsters and families as a temporary warming center. By the holidays, the East Seventh Street Faith City Church will be open for overnight stays twice weekly for women and children.

During the early years of the epidemic in 2020, a wave of squatters flooded municipal parks and vacant areas. The issue of where and how to accommodate the homeless was also brought into the spotlight.

Executive Director of Listening House Molly Jalma noted that this year the city’s new Homeless Assistance Response Team has met with the church, county, and nonprofit officials to better coordinate assistance.

On Monday, Jalma stated, “In previous years, it’s October or November and we start talking about cold weather.” It’s not like this year we’ve been asking, “Can anybody remain open tonight?” ‘”

The head of emergency services at Catholic Charities, Chris Michaels, concurred. Due to the early onset of the cold season and the fact that many people were unable to access counseling and support services during the epidemic, there has been a significant increase in the need for assistance. Her business was busier in the autumn than it typically is in the middle of winter. Three times a day, the Opportunity Center serves meals to 300 individuals.

It’s possible that the only silver lining to COVID is the teamwork and resource-sharing skills Michaels and his colleagues developed as a result of the incident.

Unfortunately, not every attempt has been so well received. Dozens of worried locals recently gathered with St. Paul police and other authorities to discuss the expansion of Kimball Court, a 76-unit apartment building between Snelling and University avenues, into permanent “low barrier” housing for the formerly homeless.

The Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative hopes to use publicly funded construction of a horizontal extension to the Charles Avenue building to provide 22 more apartments. Current units are undergoing minor upgrades.

Although the number of police calls has dropped significantly since September when Beacon Interfaith engaged a new security firm, some locals continue to oppose the growth of the organization. Opinions are divided.

Andrea Suchy-Shinn, who oversees many of her low-income housing units, said, “I don’t understand why the city turns the other way” after she observed a man die of an apparent heroin overdose in the alley behind Kimball Court. Neighbors have been holding a meeting. There is disagreement among us.

City HART team member Hinderaker noted that she and other key providers have been meeting regularly with Ramsey County’s deputy director for housing stability, Kim Clemson since the summer to organize a variety of winter programs.

On Monday night, Ramsey County started staffing two seasonal overnight warming shelters: one at the Lake Phalen boathouse on Phalen Drive for adults and another in the Newell Park facility between Pierce Butler Route and Fairview Avenue for young people ages 14 to 24.

Last summer, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz uncovered $6 million in unused federal pandemic relief money to support shelter operations in Ramsey County.

Until now, “St. Paul has not had the opportunity to catch anybody and everyone interested in warmth and safety,” as Hinderaker put it. One of the biggest obstacles for those who have elected to leave their campsite at night is the transit infrastructure that Ramsey County has integrated into its plan.

According to Jalma, business has been good at the Listening House offices in Dayton’s Bluff, where as many as 150 customers drop in each day to do things like check their mail, have lunch and socialize with other formerly homeless people. Many of the residents have just recently moved into low-income housing, yet they nevertheless frequent the center to socialize with their contemporaries.

In October, a judge in Ramsey County District Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order, ending a recent legal attempt by business owners to block or postpone the building of a new home for Listening House at the old Red’s Savoy property on the outskirts of downtown St. Paul.

Currently located in a church on Maria Avenue, Listening House is nearing the completion of interior demolition at its new headquarters on East Seventh Street and Lafayette Road. The organization plans to move into the new location and expand its operating hours to include evenings and weekends before the winter season ends.

Originally scheduled for January, “we’ve been delayed maybe about a month owing to the original litigation,” Jalma said. Having access to goods and materials will be the deciding factor in how quickly we can open. Everything seems to be well so far. The building industry experts, however, warn that you should wait since anything is possible. I’m attempting a healthy dose of skepticism-based optimism.

The city is allocating $1.4 million in tax increment financing toward the project after relaxing but not removing zoning requirements for day shelters last year.

Under the “Housing First” idea that stable housing is the first step toward other types of stability, the Kimball Court dormitory-style, single-room occupancy structure at Charles and Snelling avenues accommodates former occupants of homeless encampments nearly regardless of their criminal histories.

Nearly eighty neighbors, along with St. Paul police and a deputy director from the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections, showed up to a meeting hosted by Suchy-Shinn last October after Beacon Interfaith announced plans for a 22-unit extension.

She claims to have seen people openly exchanging drugs, and a neighbor claims a brazen drug dealer routinely parked his vehicle in front of the building.

Even those who are against the expansion have to admit that things have quieted down a little bit since Premier Management hired a security team back in September.

Beacon Interfaith spokesman Dan Gregory said that in the early days of the pandemic, drug use and other incidents increased as residents from nearby encampments began to hang out outside the building, but that calls have decreased by about 60–70% since then due to a zero-tolerance policy toward drug dealing.

He said the Hamline-Midway Coalition and St. Paul police have been actively engaged in finding answers.

“There are issues about the building, but people are extremely focused on finding answers to homelessness,” Gregory added. Beacon is dedicated to becoming a reliable collaborator in this regard.

Beacon Interfaith, according to Gregory, has been collaborating with Avivo, a Minneapolis-based supplier of mental health, employment counseling, and other support purposes, to boost the scope of services available to locals. Avivo has received a $500,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services and is requesting an additional $260,000 a year from the city of Minneapolis and Ramsey County to maintain the same level of service.

Beacon Interfaith is requesting an additional $3.2 million from the city of St. Paul to cover rising construction costs associated with the proposed $18.5 million expansion and renovation of Kimball Court. This is in addition to the $7.9 million in housing infrastructure bonds through Minnesota Housing and the sums from Ramsey County and the city of St. Paul. A new accessible entrance, lobby area, and welcome desk would all be added to the building to increase safety, and extra office space would be added for the Avivo team as well.

Some 18 of Suchy-residences Shinn’s qualify for federal Section 8 housing subsidies and Suchy-Shinn has been trying to meet with the neighborhood’s councilwoman, Mitra Jalali.

Suchy-Shinn wished for the security crew to remain permanently. “We’d want to see a council formed for the building’s occupants. Inhumane living conditions prevailed inside the structure. Previously, there was no locking mechanism in the restrooms. A lot of people with syringes were coming in off the street.

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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