St. Paul residents have spent the past two months meticulously documenting the goings-on of their new neighbor on a tucked-away block by Swede Hollow Park.
Listening House, a day center for the homeless and needy, moved into the basement of First Lutheran Church in Dayton’s Bluff in June. Even before the shelter opened, residents feared it would detract from the East Side neighborhood where they had invested so much. So they started a log.
Neighbors photographed people napping on benches and trash left outside. They frequently called police and wrote down interactions with Listening House visitors. They submitted the fat file of documents to the city and asked city officials to rethink the decision to allow the center by their homes.
The city’s Zoning Committee listened to hours of testimony for and against the shelter location on Thursday but held off on a decision about the appeal for another month.
“I do think there are options. I don’t think we can solve it here,” Committee Member Betsy Reveal said, suggesting that police and parks department staff work with residents and Listening House to improve the situation.
The crux of the zoning debate is whether the day center meets an additional condition a zoning administrator placed on it: that the center does not result in “detriments to the residential character of the neighborhood.”
Despite neighbors’ concerns, Listening House Executive Director Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey said police officers have not seen an uptick in crime since the shelter opened. There have been some issues, such as people urinating outside, she said. But often when neighbors complain, “what they are talking about is someone who is sitting on a bench,” Reger-Rumsey said.
People from Listening House have been cleaning up the area around the church daily and at Swede Hollow Park twice a week, Reger-Rumsey added. The two sides have to build trust in each other if they are going to come up with a solution, she said.
Listening House formerly was located downtown by the Dorothy Day Center, but when that shelter expanded, it had to move. The nonprofit invested more than $225,000 in its new location, said Diane McCann, who is on Listening House’s board. “Losing the space and not having the money to acquire a new space could, in effect, put the organization out of business,” McCann said.
Rene Lerma, who filed the appeal with his wife, Kim, asked, “What about our investment?”
Their home, across the street from the church, has won a city preservation award.
“This is well-intended, but we are left to deal with the unintended consequences,” he said.
Lerma and others said the center’s location, a mile or two from nighttime shelters, means people linger after day services end and sleep in Swede Hollow Park.
Neighbors worked hard to make Dayton’s Bluff a desirable place to live, said DFL state Rep. Sheldon Johnson, who represents the area.
“It would not take much for this neighborhood to slide backward,” he told the Zoning Committee, noting that many needy people already live there.
Not all residents want the shelter to move. Chelsea DeArmond, who lives down the street from First Lutheran and attends the church, was one of many who wrote in support of the nonprofit.
“There were homeless people in Swede Hollow Park before Listening House got here,” DeArmond wrote. “I am thankful that Listening House is providing services to this vulnerable population and I support their work in our community.”