Shelter founder: Homers vs. homeless?

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2008 - 10:06 AM

As Minneapolis seeks to enforce security rules at a shelter near the new Twins park, the director says it's a ploy to force out the homeless. Homeless advocate Mary Jo Copeland claims city's out to oust her from near the new ballpark but says God will trump licensing officials.

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Mary Jo Copeland, founder of Sharing and Caring Hands, which serves meals to the homeless, spoke about the need to pray for the facility to stay open. The city of Minneapolis is holding up licensure because of security issues; the shelter’s head of security, Roderic Gholston, is at right.

Photo: Joey McLeister, Star Tribune

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Saying God is on her side, Sharing and Caring Hands founder Mary Jo Copeland said Thursday that Minneapolis officials are trying to drive the homeless people she serves away from the Twins ballpark rising nearby.

But city licensing officials say they've held up the license Copeland needs to serve meals because she has resisted their entreaties to put in place a security plan to reduce drug dealing and other problems.

Copeland runs a family housing shelter and drop-in meals and other programs virtually across N. 7th Street from the new ballpark. The facility's license is one of thousands up for renewal by the city; an April 25 meeting is scheduled.

She launched a pre-emptive strike with a Bible-quoting news conference Thursday to denounce the city. She said she's willing to abide by reasonable requirements.

"I don't go into people's meetings if I know they're going to harass me," she said, before ending the conference with the "Hail Mary."

The city takes the issue seriously enough that Mayor R.T. Rybak met with Copeland a year ago, but did not resolve the issue.

"They were having trouble getting through to her," said Rybak spokesman Jeremy Hanson. "She once told him that when he's going against her, he's going against God."

"They came in almost like Gestapo," said Dick Copeland, Mary Jo's husband.

"The truth is they don't want us here."

The need for land near transportation and people has drawn both sports and homeless facilities to the fringes of downtown. People Serving People's family shelter sits two blocks from the Metrodome, and a cluster of shelters and more permanent housing for the homeless sit as close as a block from the Target Center. In St. Paul, Catholic Charities operates Dorothy Day Center for homeless people across from Xcel Center.

None of the others reported problems with the city. "Absolutely not," said Rebecca Lentz, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, which runs a 250-mat shelter a block from Target Center on Currie Avenue.

"We have a good working relationship with Target Center and the Timberwolves," said Bill Miller, who runs Salvation Army's Harbor Light, which offers programs for homeless people, also on Currie.

At People Serving People, two blocks from the Metrodome, the Twins donate tickets for an annual fundraiser, and for kids to attend games.

But there are "serious security issues" at Sharing and Caring Hands, reported Ricardo Cervantes, the city's deputy director for licenses and consumer services.

"Sharing and Caring hands has been on my radar since I walked in the door," said Cervantes, who has held his post for three years. Problems include illicit drugs, disorderly conduct, loitering and public nuisance infractions, he said.

Police made 17 arrests at Sharing and Caring Hands for drug offenses in 2006 after making undercover buys of marijuana and crack cocaine. Cervantes told of watching one young man go in and out of the center, then roll a marijuana joint; when questioned by an accompanying officer, he pulled out an ID and sex offender papers.

The city is holding people accountable for their behavior, said Don Samuels, the area's council member. "Should a place that serves the poor and homeless be guaranteed an exemption?" he asked. "I don't think we should do that because these strategies were designed to keep people safe, and who should be kept more safe than the vulnerable?"

Dick Copeland showed off the 17 cameras at Sharing and Caring Hands that are monitored by one of three security workers. He said the facility has a security plan; it's just not written. The family shelter has a controlled entrance.

He said the city didn't give the Copelands much help after his wife began operations nearby in 1985. He said that city pressure stepped up in spring 2007, just before ballpark construction began. "All of the sudden the city's concerned we're not doing this right," Copeland said.

But Cervantes said that the city took action only after years of having Copeland ignore requests.

The Copelands don't blame the Twins. The team has donated posters and also clothing collected from players and their families as they pack up after the season, according to Kevin Smith, the Twins' executive director of public affairs.

"Mary's Place and Sharing and Caring Hands are as much a part of Twins Territory as any place," he said, using a team marketing term.

The team also has talked to Salvation Army representatives about employing some of its residents in concession and other ballpark jobs, said team official Bryan Donaldson, who serves on the advisory board for Harbor Light. "We know the neighborhood we're moving into," he said.

Copeland said her facility is the safest place in the city and said she's praying for a change of heart by city officials. But she claimed a trump card: "The power of almighty God runs this city."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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