BEMIDJI, Minn. – The little church feels smaller inside, its single room lined with old carpet and yellow walls. Soon, the simple space could serve a humble purpose: keeping homeless alcoholics alive through the winter.
“It may not look like much to some people,” said Keni Johnson, pocketing the key, “but I’ll tell you, it’s going to be a welcome thing.”
A group of residents, including Johnson, is turning this downtown church into a nighttime shelter for a set of homeless people who they say have too few options: chronic alcohol and drug users. So this shelter — unlike another in town — will accept drunk people, who can check their bottles at the door.
“We’re doing it because it has to be done,” said Kristi Tell Miller, treasurer of the Nameless Coalition for the Homeless. “They’re a population that’s not being served.”
Last week, the nonprofit won a permit and a variance from the Greater Bemidji Joint Planning Board to convert the building, which it bought for $90,000, into a seasonal shelter for 16 people, with a room for two women. After a few neighbors spoke against the plans, the board promised a review in six months.
Reed Olson, chairman of the Nameless Coalition, told the board that he welcomes frequent check-ins — “monthly for all I care.”
“I think we will be able to demonstrate immediately that we are a good fit in the neighborhood and we’re good for the community,” he said, “that we’ll save the police money, we’ll save the ER visits, we’ll give some people a little bit of dignity where maybe sometimes they don’t have it.”
Bemidji, the seat of one the state’s poorest counties, is home to at least 20 to 30 homeless, chronic alcoholics who bounce between friends and family, a church shelter and outside, according to a 2014 study by Center City Housing Corp., a nonprofit, Duluth-based affordable housing developer that has plans to build in Bemidji.
Johnson, 67, lives north of town, so she was surprised by the number of people camping under downtown bridges and hanging out at the library. “I think it’s the misconception a lot of people have,” she said. “We think it’s a nice little resort town. People come for summer.
“But there is a homeless population here that needs help.”
What kind of neighbor?
For the 2014 study, the Bemidji Police Department identified 37 homeless men and women with whom they had the most contact, calculating that they were responsible for 1,652 police calls over two years — about 22 calls a year per person.
A third of those calls were for disorderly conduct, a broad category that might include someone shouting, said Police Chief Mike Mastin. Just the other day, police got a call about “a gentleman sleeping in the grass in the park,” he noted. “Now, do citizens call for every man sleeping in the grass in the park? But for whatever reason, they pick this person out based on how he looks, what he’s doing.
“He’s not breaking the law. He’s just homeless.”
When the temperature plummets, officers cannot leave a man experiencing homelessness outside. But where can he go?
“They don’t fit any condition a hospital will take them,” Mastin said. “They’re not committing any crime, so they’re not going to jail.”
A few shelters cater to families, or women. A rotating shelter hosted by several churches in the area won’t admit intoxicated people, he said. Peoples Church, which has housed people for more than a decade, is an option, but it’s often packed.
“Hopefully this Nameless Coalition facility will fill the gap,” Mastin said.
When Mastin says the police will keep an eye on the place, he means it: “I’m looking at it right now, out my window,” he said by phone Friday.
“Is it going to have problems? Likely,” Mastin continued. “But we’ll just have to find solutions. Because there is a need for a facility like that.”
Partly because of its proximity to law enforcement and community services, the group believes the old church’s downtown location is ideal.
“It has to be where the homeless are,” Tell Miller said, “and they’re here.”
But a few neighbors have criticized the building’s proximity to a music school and the library. The law firm next door is worried that the shelter’s clients will disrupt business, said Ronald Cayko, a partner at Fuller, Wallner, Cayko, Pederson & Huseby Ltd.
“It’s a bad location for a needed service,” Cayko said. “As difficult as it is, they ought to keep looking.”
He also alleges legal issues with the group’s permit. While the shelter sought a variance because it’s within 500 feet of the library, other entities should have had that same process, he said. And an interim use permit ought to specify an end date, Cayko added.
The Nameless Coalition is creating this shelter — set to operate from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. November through April, depending on the weather — as a stopgap until Center City Housing builds a complex in a few years.
“If we found ourselves redundant, we’ll probably sell the building,” said Olson, who is also on the City Council.
By then, the group hopes to be working on even bigger projects, Olson later said, addressing the knotty issues that lead to homelessness. The coalition formed two years ago, following the deaths of two homeless men. A seasonal shelter was the longest-term of the group’s initial goals.
“And we were going to have a shelter that winter,” Olson said, smiling at their early optimism.
By 9 a.m. on a muggy morning, most folks had cleared out of Peoples Church. But Suzanne Chute was still getting going. She sat in the basement, near the fan, and tapped instant coffee grounds into her mug.
Chute, 50, has lived here for more than a year. She’s disabled, so the stairs are slow going. And she sometimes gets nervous about staying in a big room with “a bunch of men.” But rent is just too expensive, she said.
Peoples Church is open all year, but asks people to leave during the day. It won’t turn drunk or high people away, “as long as they can be decent, can mind their manners,” said Pastor Bob Kelly.
They can’t bring alcohol or drugs inside. “That’s not to say that they don’t sneak it in,” he said. “But I’ve poured out a lot of vodka in the dumpster.”
He and the church’s deacon, Julia Plum, welcome another shelter in the city, they said, especially given their numbers last winter: Some nights, they took in 35 people. “It’s needed,” Plum said. “But it ain’t going to put us out of business, not going to put anybody out of business.
“Maybe we’ll have 20 people instead of 35, and that would be just fine.”
Chute has heard about the new shelter and thinks it will fill up. She wonders, though, why it won’t be open during the summer, or during the day — her biggest issue.
“We need something that’s open for shelter in the day,” she said.