St. Paul residents packed into a church basement on the East Side earlier this week, gathering in a room decorated with hundreds of framed snapshots of smiling people who have been homeless or in need of services.
The neighbors, however, were not smiling. They felt angry, frustrated and put-upon.
The basement of First Lutheran Church in Dayton’s Bluff will open Monday as the new home of Listening House. The nonprofit previously operated a downtown daytime service center by Dorothy Day Center, but it moved when Catholic Charities expanded. Listening House served people for three decades at its old location and was dubbed the “living room of the homeless.”
Many residents at the community meeting at the church Wednesday night said they don’t want that living room next to their own, and they are frustrated they didn’t hear about the move sooner. They worry that drug use, panhandling and other issues will accompany the center’s move and detract from their efforts to clean up the low-income neighborhood.
“I really think that these are good people under unfortunate circumstances,” said Gary Bobb, who lives by Payne Avenue. “But how much does the East Side have to take?”
The clash over the day center comes as downtown residents are also grappling with issues tied to homelessness, like people sleeping in skyways and urinating in public. A new partnership that includes local government officials, foundations and nonprofits is working to house people who have been homeless for years, or even decades. Case managers have helped 38 people move into permanent housing since January.
“We are moving in the right direction toward a coordinated approach,” said Tina Curry, a director at Ramsey County who is on the partnership’s governance committee. She said the partnership is going to continue that approach for the foreseeable future.
That effort is focused on downtown, but people are in need of housing and help across the city, Listening House Executive Director Rosemarie Reger-Rumsey said.
“We know that the East Side is filled with people who are tucking themselves into a number of different places” to sleep, she said.
Even if people have a place to spend the night, they still need to be part of a community and have meaningful activities during the day, Reger-Rumsey said. That’s where her organization comes in. It offers people a place to be on weekdays, usually from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
Rene and Kim Lerma live across the street from First Lutheran Church and are worried about problems that could arise after the center closes its doors for the day.
The Lermas’ brightly painted red and green house features ornate woodwork, and their yard brims with carefully cared-for flowers and plants. The neighborhood has come together to push out problem landlords, Kim Lerma said, and “we’re tired of fighting.”
Residents and Eastern District Police Senior Cmdr. Axel Henry talked Wednesday night about how hard community members have worked to fix up old homes in Dayton’s Bluff and how they have invested time and money to make the area — which has a high poverty rate — vibrant and welcoming.
“We’re not going to let that go away or be harmed,” Henry said.
Residents who attended the meeting repeatedly noted problems with people sleeping, drinking and urinating near the church when it used to serve breakfast to people in need.
The Lermas said they are surprised, particularly given past problems, that Listening House and the church don’t have a better plan to deal with criminal behavior and did not tell the community what was coming sooner. Residents, with the support of City Council Member Jane Prince, gave the church and nonprofit a list of requests they hope will mitigate issues, like a 24-hour phone line for neighbors to report problems and monthly meetings with Listening House.
Reger-Rumsey said she was wrong not to organize a community meeting earlier and will try to address residents’ concerns. But she wishes people concentrated more on the systemic problems behind this neighborhood debate.
“We need more entry-level work opportunities, and we need meaningful mental health policy,” she said. “Until we do that as a society, we’re just going to serve the people in front of us.”