A daytime drop-in center for homeless people has settled its lawsuit against the city of St. Paul and will not have to comply with city-imposed limits on the number of guests it serves — just in time for winter.
Listening House, which operates out of the basement of First Lutheran Church in the city’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, filed suit in Ramsey County District Court last April, saying a number of conditions placed on it by the City Council were “draconian” and “unreasonable.” Of the 14 conditions the city placed on Listening House, officials said the most onerous was limiting the total number of guests the center could serve to 20 a day. Listening House assists more than 100 people per day who stop by to socialize, nap, eat, clean up and get clean clothes.
First Lutheran Church soon afterward filed a lawsuit of its own in federal court, alleging the city violated its First Amendment rights and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. A federal judge in July blocked the city from enforcing restrictions on the drop-in center that limited the number of visitors and required the posting of a “no trespassing” sign.
The settlement, signed Nov. 5 and filed in state court, will be voted on by the St. Paul City Council at its meeting Wednesday. In the agreement, the number of guests at the center is limited only to what is allowed by state building and fire codes. Listening House also agrees to a number of other conditions, including:
• Uses that are low profile, generate limited traffic and are compatible with the church’s presence in the community.
• Encouraging guests to leave the area after Listening House closes and providing bus fare to guests in need.
• Having staff on site one-half hour before and one-half hour after its 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. operating hours.
• Prohibiting the use of alcohol or controlled substances by guests anywhere on the First Lutheran Church properties.
• Calling emergency services when a guest poses a threat of bodily harm.
In addition, Listening House has agreed to attend monthly meetings of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council and community policing meetings. According to the agreement, center officials said they would review security camera footage daily to “identify issues of concern and potential intervention.” The center agreed to clearly post guest behavior expectations and consequences.
The City Council last year imposed more restrictive conditions on Listening House, including the 20-guests-per-day limit, after receiving complaints for months about people they said were center guests who were trespassing, littering and using drugs and alcohol in the neighborhood. Neighbors talked of center guests coming onto their porches and trying to enter their homes.
Listening House moved to Dayton’s Bluff after its longtime home near the Dorothy Day Center downtown was displaced by the construction of Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground. The move to First Lutheran had been approved by the city, and Listening House spent more than $250,000 to renovate the church basement.
Almost immediately, however, neighbors began documenting negative behavior they attributed to Listening House guests. Several have said that while the center provides needed services, it is inappropriate for a residential neighborhood filled with school-age children.
On Thursday, Listening House Executive Director Cheryl Peterson said in an e-mail that the settlement “is a fair resolution. We can live with and operate under the conditions. We’re happy to have a resolution.” She added that she hopes “it addresses our neighbors’ concerns.”
In an e-mailed statement City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said, “The city recognizes the additional terms placed on Listening House after beginning its operation were unduly limiting. The settlement appropriately resolves the terms at issue in [the] suit brought against the city. The ... terms of the settlement provide better balance between residents’ concerns and Listening House’s mission of serving the homeless.”