Jaunae Brooks showed up at St. Paul's City Council meeting Wednesday with a suitcase containing bottles of urine, fecal-stained carpet and used needles she gathered from her Lowertown building.
The city needed to see what she's dealing with, Brooks said, and what compelled her to illegally lock the door connecting her building to the downtown skyway system.
"People always say, 'Oh, it can't be that bad.' It's that bad," Brooks said. "The city needs to step up."
Her decision to block people from entering her building after 8 p.m. comes as St. Paul officials and various local groups are trying to improve the safety and cleanliness of public skyways.
The city surveyed property owners about security and is developing standards for owners' responsibilities and for skyway conduct. The St. Paul Foundation is hiring outreach workers to connect homeless people with shelters, and the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association is looking into contracting with security guards to patrol all the skyways, Council Member Rebecca Noecker said.
Brooks and some of her tenants said that is not enough. She asked for an exemption to the city's requirement that skyways remain open between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. Council members did not approve that, but they voted to hold off on making a decision for three weeks as they try to come up with a solution to help Brooks.
"I completely hear the concerns that property owners have raised," said Noecker, whose ward includes downtown. But if some buildings are unexpectedly closed it creates problems for downtown residents trying to get home, she said.
Other building owners will want to lock up early if Brooks gets an exemption, Noecker said, and she doesn't want that to happen.
Brooks said her situation is unique: Her building at 235 6th St. E. is near the end of the skyway network and it's full of places to hide. It has become a destination for people who need a place to stay at night, Brooks said, and those people are not deterred by video cameras and a security guard who patrols her building and others nearby. Council members suggested she add full-time security, but Brooks said she cannot afford it.
Mike Franklin, an attorney who works there, said he and his co-workers have encountered people sleeping in the lobby in the morning. For a while, the building's lone elevator smelled so strongly of urine that they wouldn't bring clients to the office, he said.
Brooks feared four tenants whose leases are up for renewal would leave if the problems persisted. So in March she put a keypad on the door to the skyway and only gave the code to select people.
Immediately, Franklin said the problems disappeared. But St. Paul sent Brooks a notice last week saying she could face criminal charges if she continues to lock people out. The City Council's decision to hold off on that for now is a "mini victory," Brooks said, but she would have kept the doors closed regardless.
"If I have a criminal charge on my record, oh well," said Brooks, who has six buildings in downtown St. Paul. "I have to do what I have to do to keep my building safe."