St. Paul city officials are thinking about letting more overnight homeless shelters operate closer to the center of downtown, a move that advocates say could ease the strain on packed shelters in the area.
“The impetus for this is that there’s clearly a need for more homeless shelters and services, and the need is strongest in downtown, and that’s why the City Council directed us to undertake this study,” said Bill Dermody, a city planner.
The St. Paul Planning Commission is seeking community feedback about the proposed zoning change at a hearing Friday. The hearing comes as St. Paul and Ramsey County officials as well as homeless advocates grapple with a growing unsheltered population in need of housing and other services.
Under the city’s existing zoning ordinance, overnight shelters are allowed on the outskirts of downtown only with a conditional permit that puts it at least 600 feet from domestic violence shelters, emergency housing and supportive housing with four adults. Emergency housing, community residential facilities and sober homes are allowed in more downtown areas under the same permit.
Minnesota’s homeless community numbered 10,233 people as of last October, according to a Wilder Research study released in March. That marked a 10% rise in the state’s homeless since 2015.
Advocates point to a lack of affordable housing, access to drug and alcohol services and mental health care as key issues for the homeless population.
Another problem, they say, is that prospective renters often are unable to find a place to live because of their eviction history or failure to meet security deposit requirements. Such barriers, they said, keep shelters filled and people spending the night on light-rail trains.
While advocates approve of the Legislature’s $60 million investment this spring in supportive housing, they remain worried about the need for homes and services right now. That’s why “adding a shelter would be very positive,” said Tracy Berglund, senior director of housing stability with Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Catholic Charities serves about 2,500 people annually at its Higher Ground shelter in St. Paul. Berglund said that while they’re working to bring the shelter’s bed count up to 356 by later this fall, smaller shelters would help give more personal attention to individuals in need.
“There will be fewer places to locate shelters when sites are hard to find, and there’s so much need,” Berglund said. “It just increases the challenge of solving the short-term emergency. … it’s kind of a Band-Aid that we need.”
The St. Paul City Council last winter approved an interim permit allowing Ramsey County to operate an overnight shelter. But after renewing the permit in May, City Council members directed the Planning Commission to consider allowing more overnight shelters to operate without needing to renew temporary permits.
Kathy Mouacheupao, chairwoman of the Planning Commission’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee, said the zoning proposal is taken from the city’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan and is part of its larger strategy to tackle homelessness.
Under the plan, building and preserving more housing for the homeless and people in need of supportive services is a key goal. The plan is a sweeping document mapping goals for housing, land use, transportation and more that the city adopted in 2010.
“Part of the discussion among my colleagues at the Planning Commission is thinking about shelters for families, too, and seeing homelessness showing up in schools,” Mouacheupao said.
“Although that’s outside the purview of this particular [zoning] study and this particular case, I think there’s a desire — and I think it shows in our comprehensive plan — that the city wants to address homelessness.”