Dakota County won't apply for a state grant that could have helped fund a homeless shelter after dozens of residents voiced strong opposition to the idea at a recent meeting.
County commissioners, the majority of whom had signaled their support for the grant application the week before, said they'll step back and rethink their options. But the public outcry raises the question: Is suburban Dakota County ready for its first permanent, county-operated homeless shelter for adults?
The $10 million grant would have enabled the county to buy the Norwood Inn and Suites in Eagan and renovate it into a shelter with 55 individual rooms and social services on-site. But the timeline was tight, officials said, leaving little opportunity for public engagement.
"I was never going to vote for this because we were doing it all wrong," said Dakota County Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg, who represents Lakeville. "I want to go back to the way Dakota County always does things in a very deliberative, planning way, and bringing the community along with us."
Two of the most ardent supporters of the shelter idea were absent at Tuesday's meeting; the Board of Commissioners didn't take a vote on whether to move forward. That effectively took the grant off the table, because the county was nearing the application deadline.
A growing need
But officials said Dakota County still desperately needs a long-term homeless shelter, and two commissioners noted that buying the Norwood Inn still might be a future option.
"More people are falling into homelessness over time than our system is equipped to respond to," said Evan Henspeter, Dakota County's social services director. "If we don't think long-term, plan for this, the problem is not going away."
The county's annual "point-in-time" count this winter found 80 residents were unsheltered, up from 72 people in 2019, according to county documents.
Henspeter is hopeful the community is prepared to support a permanent shelter. More and more residents understand that homelessness is a real issue — and it's not driven by bad people or bad decisions, he said.
But the "not-in-my-backyard" mentality persists, he said.
"These are tough realities in all communities, that not everybody will support a project to serve some of the most vulnerable in the community if it's by where they live or where they work," he said.
Shelter plans and concerns
Dakota County has been working on an ongoing shelter solution for years, Henspeter said.
County officials learned about the grant this summer and had to move quickly to identify a potential shelter site, because the state prioritizes applications with a specified location. Several sites were floated at an August board meeting.
The Norwood Inn rose to the top of the list, Henspeter said, because of its convenient location and a lower appraised value than other hotels. The hotel, right off I-35E, is also near a Dairy Queen, another hotel, several restaurants, a park and a strip mall that houses a Montessori school.
At last week's county board meeting, residents said they opposed the grant application for several reasons: the hotel's location, the lack of time for public comment and the steep cost — about $24 million — to buy and renovate the hotel.
Others worried about the shelter's impact on businesses and residents nearby, especially children.
Burnsville resident Mike Tierney suggested the city should instead buy townhomes for homeless residents. He said a shelter would "kill" the area's restaurants.
"These [businesses] are going to ... shut down and you're going to have empty buildings, trust me, because they're not going to put up with these people doing what homeless people have a tendency to do," he said, adding that shelter clientele would "lay around" and "drink too much."
Mary Ander of Eagan told commissioners that safety was a huge concern and asked how shelter residents would be vetted: "Are they mentally ill? Are they drug addicted?"
David Ansari, whose family owns the neighboring Ansari's Mediterranean Grill, said he's already concerned about crime and drug use in the area, and that the addition of a homeless shelter would "double down" on problems.
"There's no way we could stay. It's not safe for us, it's not safe for my family," he said.
But some speakers defended the project. Apple Valley resident Liz Lund worried that others were linking people's character to their homelessness and said living in transitional housing allowed her to attend college, get a good job and pay taxes.
"I ask these neighbors to be courageous then, and solutions-oriented," she said. "If this is not the site, what is the site?"
"We can't just ignore this"
The county already is in the "shelter business," noted Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins, a supporter of the grant application who couldn't attend Tuesday's meeting because of his wife's surgery.
"We're doing it now, and we're doing it in a variety of locations around the county," Atkins said.
Dakota County has a temporary hotel shelter program that leases space at an Extended Stay America in Eagan. It contracts with Dakota Woodlands to provide shelter space for women and families and works with two nonprofits — Ally and The Link — that offer shelter at various county hotels.
The county will continue providing those services through 2024, Henspeter said.
In 2023, Dakota County spent about $3.2 million on sheltering single adults and about $11 million total on housing support programs.
Holberg said that before the pandemic, the county had an emergency overnight shelter that rotated to several area churches. That effort moved to hotel rooms to protect people from contracting COVID-19 in a congregate space.
Holberg chaired a housing working group made up of law enforcement, faith leaders, county commissioners and people who have been homeless starting in 2017. The group's work prompted the county to open an apartment complex for homeless families with intensive, on-site services and an effort to get more landlords to offer Section 8 housing.
"We've done a whole myriad of things in this space," she said.
The task force also recommended that the county invest in a permanent shelter for single adults.
Holberg, who became emotional at the meeting, said people should count themselves lucky if they're not dealing with mental health or addiction issues in their own family.
"The conversation about 'those people' or 'they' — 'they' are 'we'," she said. "We can't just ignore this as a suburban county."
The county's public discussion of a shelter location could lead to suggestions of other good sites, Commissioner Mike Slavik said, adding that he still believes it's better for the county to own a shelter rather than lease it.
Commissioner Mary Hamann-Roland said she hopes additional state funds are available to tackle homelessness and that, if so, the county will have more time to apply.
"It's the beginning of a conversation that needs to happen in Dakota County," she said.