By this summer, Minneapolis leaders hope to open a Lake Street Community Safety Center — a place where residents, social service providers and police officers could come together to work with each other and serve people in need.

But first, the city faces a tough task: gathering direction from residents, including many who remain wary of police after years of drug use, vandalism and more serious crimes along the key south Minneapolis corridor.

In community-led gatherings over the last year, residents discussing safety issues noted that the area is already dotted with organizations serving the area's least privileged residents, offering services that the government has traditionally declined to provide: clean needle exchange, naloxone distribution, and food, showers and tents for those living on the street.

Sam Gould, co-founder of Confluence, an E. Lake Street community design studio, said some neighbors feel the city's plans ring hollow.

"It's not necessarily being developed through the immediate needs and desires of the people living here, and therefore not really responsive to a unique place," Gould said.

But others see opportunity. A few years ago, there was a modest storefront safety center on E. Lake Street and Chicago Avenue. Staffed full-time by a city crime prevention specialist, it was a place where neighbors could make victim impact statements and get help for domestic violence. The center eventually burned down, a casualty of the riots that snarled the immigrant business corridor after a former Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in 2020.

E. Lake Street and the residential neighborhoods that flank it have since undergone several years of hard healing, trying to rebuild amid chronic police understaffing and an endless march of homeless encampments. Some community leaders believe a relaunched safety center, which would build on Minneapolis' fledgling efforts to expand its public safety model, could help.

"Since 2020, there have been lots of challenges on Lake Street, certainly hotspots and chronic issues with addiction, mental health and violence, and so we have wanted, given the absence of a Third Precinct, to shape a new approach, to blend prevention work with law enforcement," said Louis Smith, a member of the Lake Street Greenway Partnership.

The effort has funding: Last year, the City Council set aside half a million dollars to put up a temporary safety center, which does not yet have a publicly announced location. Officials hope to replace it in early 2025 with a permanent facility at 2633 Minnehaha Av., just off Lake Street. Third Precinct police officers, who have been at an interim headquarters downtown ever since protesters torched their former station at 3000 Minnehaha Av., are expected to return at that point as part of a comprehensive collection of services including unarmed responders.

"A subset of folks who could use that facility might not if the police are present, and that's not necessarily an argument for not trying something new and different that gets at the immediate community safety needs and promotes coordination and cooperation across silos," said Russ Adams, manager of corridor recovery initiatives for the Lake Street Council. "Residents and businesses would like to see something done about the current conditions on Lake Street. ... The worst thing would be status quo."

Lake Street hot spots

In early spring, a man and a woman were injured by gunfire at the intersection of Lake and Bloomington, a busy intersection anchored by the Mercado Central marketplace and the nonprofit Family Partnership. Soon after, a 58-year-old man was shot and killed near the corner.

This year there's been drug activity where Bloomington and 16th Avenues meet Lake Street. Last year the commotion was concentrated around 12th and Lake, where a shooting left a man dead and a woman injured. Increased police presence soon moved crime to other corners, yet the little plaza outside the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, which has benches and a statue of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, remains surrounded by a chain-link fence.

"Anything additional on Lake Street that has to do with safety is a good idea right now," said Dianne Haulcy, CEO of the Family Partnership. The building has a child care center and an anti-sex trafficking drop-in hub where six to 10 people a day come to shower, wash their clothes, eat and nap. Haulcy would like to see the Lake Street Community Safety Center augment the Family Partnership's existing services with harm reduction, addiction treatment and housing casework.

So far one organization has committed to being a part of the Lake Street Community Safety Center: Let Everyone Advance with Dignity (LEAD), a year-old program that works with indigent, homeless and disabled people to keep them out of the criminal justice system.

On a blustery afternoon in April, LEAD project manager Latasha Jennings and caseworker Maria Zavala walked down E. Lake Street. The Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches at 11th and Lake offers meals and showers on Fridays, when people who are homeless can visit the Sanctuary Supply Depot, a group that distributes outdoor survival gear. Just a few blocks away is the latest iteration of Camp Nenookaasi, where many of LEAD's clients live. At a nearby furniture shop, a glass door had been busted in the middle in the night. The person captured on security cameras bashing it with a rock looked like they might have been seeking a warm place to sleep, the business owner told the team.

Business owners often call LEAD about people congregating outside their shops, being disruptive or having crises. But unlike traditional security, LEAD doesn't just show up and shoo people off; they try to establish communication and de-escalate conflict.

For example: People were calling police about someone snatching bread from the bakery at Mercado Central. The baker didn't want to involve police and exacerbate tensions with someone who was probably just hungry. So Zavala leveled with the suspect, telling him that the baker was willing to give him bread if he just asked, but that if he loitered right outside, it could hurt the business.

"We don't want to just listen to the complaint. We ask them, what are we gonna do together to change it?" Zavala said.

The city is hosting engagement sessions through the end of May with ethnic groups, disabled and homeless people about services they want to see in the community safety centers.