As winter settled in this month, the city of Anoka struggled with a compelling problem: homeless youth sleeping outdoors in subzero temperatures because they had no warm place to stay.
The issue flared when a fledgling drop-in center, HOPE 4 Youth, proposed adding sleeping quarters at its site in the Milk Factory building, near the city's Northstar commuter rail station.
"We went to the city with this idea because there was space available in our building and because we were struggling to find a place for youth that were sleeping outside," HOPE 4 Youth co-founder Brian Swanson told the City Council in mid-December.
At the packed meeting, the council — noting that Anoka already has a 60-bed homeless shelter — passed a moratorium for up to a year on new overnight shelters while it studies the matter and sets standards if more facilities are allowed.
Mayor Phil Rice noted that, in the past five years, Anoka has increased the number of temporary beds for homeless adults from 16 to 60. He said that the city is doing more than its share and that other communities need to start offering homeless housing.
Swanson said later that he had spoken to Rice and appreciated city concerns, including that a shelter in the Milk Factory might not fit city plans to develop a business and residential community around the Northstar station. "I concluded it is not a good use of our resources to try and fight this. The city has valid points," he said.
Not the last word
The issue is likely to come up again, however.
Anoka County has only two homeless housing programs: Stepping Stone Emergency Housing in Anoka, with the 60 beds, and Family of Promise, which houses four or five families for up to 90 days in 14 churches, said Karrie Schaaf, a homeless-liaison worker for the Anoka-Hennepin School District. She said the district currently has 537 homeless students in all grades, including 105 older students living without a parent or guardian.
Swanson said that nearly all the homeless youth he is aware of have been placed in low-cost apartments run by the Mary T services organization. He said HOPE also will work with the area YMCA, which is starting a program in January to provide rooms for the homeless in private homes in the county.
State Rep. Jim Abeler, who owns the Milk Factory, said he had offered HOPE very low rent for shelter space because he believes in their program. He said HOPE is dealing with people under 24 who are young enough to make positive life changes.
"If we do this well, some of these kids will live, and beyond living they will actually thrive, " said Abeler, who lives and works in Anoka. "If we don't do this well, some of them will not make it to 21, or they will find themselves in jail or a rehab program instead of working and being producing members of our society."
Debate before the council
At the recent meeting, Anoka resident Barbara Baldwin criticized the council for not giving Hope 4 Youth at least a temporary, six-month approval of its request to offer about 10 beds for people ages 18 to 23 for up to 21 days.
"I think the [moratorium] should have an exemption for HOPE 4 Youth so young people have a safe place that's warm," said Baldwin, the head of the city's Economic Development Commission, who said she has experienced homelessness. "We should be ashamed of ourselves if we let people freeze when we have the ability not to let it happen."
Resident Merrywayne Elvig, a city housing authority commissioner, said homelessness is a countywide problem, not just an Anoka one. "We have enough. We can't handle any more [shelters]," she said.
Trinity Fletcher, 20, who was homeless 16 months ago, is a member of HOPE 4 Youth's board of directors. She said she never went to Stepping Stone, which focuses on adult homelessness.
"I was scared of it. I was scared of the older people" and reports of shelter theft and fights, Fletcher said. She volunteers at HOPE's drop-in center, which opened in March. She said a shelter is definitely needed for homeless young people. The center "is totally different than an adult shelter," she said.
Council Member Carl Anderson said that "nobody wants to see kids on the street, but we have to do it in the right way."