Minneapolis officials are looking to scrap a decades-old law that requires emergency homeless shelters to be housed in places of worship.

The change would free shelter operators to relocate, expand and provide more suitable accommodations for families and individuals.

"I'd like to be able to [have beds] in buildings that are meant for human habitation, which are, by definition, not church basements," said Stephen Horsfield, executive director at Simpson Housing Services in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis is wading into what has become a divisive issue nationally. Many other communities around the country are enacting stringent restrictions to keep shelters from popping up near schools and residential areas, often treating them no differently than strip clubs, adult bookstores and tattoo parlors.

Under zoning rules adopted in 1995, emergency homeless shelters in Minneapolis must be located in a place of worship, such as a church or a mosque. A change approved in 2010 allows for a small area in downtown Minneapolis where shelters can operate outside of a place of worship.

Minneapolis is rethinking its shelter restrictions as the number of homeless residents in Hennepin County crept up to 4,343 in 2012, according to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. That's the highest number in more than a decade.

Supporters say the city should give shelter operators greater ability to deal with what has proved to be a persistent homeless problem. There are now 13 emergency homeless shelters in Hennepin County, including five that take families and three for children or young adults.

"We should be looking at other ways to regulate shelter that would allow more flexibility, that would allow locating in buildings that are more suitable," said City Council Member Lisa Bender, who's leading the push for the change.

Needs have changed

The problem is highlighted in the basement at Simpson United Methodist Church, which established housing for the homeless in 1981.

Mats were rolled out and crowded together on the gym floor last week, as dozens of people seeking a place to sleep made their way through the church's doors.

The aging building is not ideal, shelter staff members said, as it reaches its maximum occupancy almost every night.

Religious institutions were the first to respond to an increase in homelessness in the early 1980s, stepping forward to lease their properties and make room for beds, said Mikkel Beckmen, director of Hennepin County's Office to End Homelessness.

Over time, Horsfield said, needs have changed and so, too, have the organizations providing help. "As this became more of a perpetual problem, the work has become more sophisticated," he said. "It's become more of the work of not-for-profit agencies, social services agencies, than it has for pure faith organizations."

Some religious institutions don't necessarily provide financial support for the shelters, Bender said, so the church-shelter relationship can create a false impression.

Uncomfortable in churches

For those who are secular or whose beliefs contradict the place of worship, the shelter space could feel uninviting, said Chris Stinson, policy director at OutFront Minnesota, which advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. "Some people in the community don't feel comfortable [in churches]," he said.

But there is growing concern that loosening the zoning restrictions could bring too many shelters to certain areas, such as in Minneapolis' Whittier neighborhood, where several shelters already exist. Homeless shelters can bring problems with drugs, public drunkenness and people sleeping on the sidewalk.

"Having more available properties, less expensive properties might create oversaturation," said Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood group. Biehn said city officials should consult with neighborhoods that already house many shelters as they consider the zoning code change.

Beckmen said removing the rule would not likely lead to massive expansion or an influx in emergency housing. He said it would help existing shelters improve their facilities and relocate if necessary.

"Churches were never built to be places of human habitation, and it's hard to provide a dignified setting," he said.

Talks coming this spring

Bender and staff members plan to establish a committee this spring to discuss changes.

"There's really strong commitment in our region, in Hennepin County and the city, to look for long-term solutions for housing," she said.

Five years ago, Simpson Housing Services had beds at the nonprofit Community Emergency Services. But the city forced them to move because the nonprofit was not a place of active worship. The shelter had to rent more space at its main home, the church.

Horsfield said he never imagined the church-shelter relationship would stick for so long.

"We've been operating shelter in the exact same way, in the exact same church basement," he said. "We probably would've done a bit more over time to create some creature comforts as opposed to mats on a gym floor."

Jessica Lee is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for Star Tribune.

Jessica Lee • 701-425-2302