The little bank building off Robert Street has been empty for more than a decade.

Inside are relics of what it once was, and signs of work unfinished. Old popcorn machines and rolls of insulation line the walls. Broken toilets and sinks are stacked in a corner.

Pastor Donnell Bratton sees potential for something else: A homeless shelter tailored specifically to youths — a place where they could find a bed for the night, a hot meal, even health care and mental health services.

The old bank is the perfect spot, he said, with schools and transit nearby. If successful, it would be Dakota County's first youth shelter, joining a rising number of facilities for homeless youths that have opened in suburban communities in recent years.

"We have the skills, we have the mind-set, we have the tools — we just need the space and the opportunity," Bratton said.

The problem is the zoning around the West St. Paul bank, which is limited largely to commercial uses. The bank is next to a Kmart, and across a vast parking lot from the Signal Hills strip mall. The area is zoned for "shopping center" uses, which allows for most types of retail, said Community Development Director Jim Hartshorn.

Building owner Essam Fawzi said he's put about $600,000 of work into the former Signal Hills Bank building since purchasing it three years ago, and has had to turn away potential tenants, including an event center.

"We'd love to see something redeveloped there," Hartshorn said. "It's just that every time he brings us a project, it's not zoned correctly for that project."

Bratton's idea for a shelter appeals to Fawzi, who said he's offered a rent discount. But a homeless shelter would qualify as a residential use, and the City Council would have to vote to make an exception for it, said City Planner Ben Boike.

Bratton said he was told the chances of an exception being approved are "very slim."

At this point, Fawzi said, he just wants to rent the building. Standing in what was once the bank's lobby, wearing a starched white shirt and wide red tie, the cellphone and keys clasped in his left hand clattered as he gestured.

"I'm just moving forward," Fawzi said. "I'm not waiting for nobody."

Youth homelessness rising

When Bratton first saw the bank, he envisioned a church outreach center there. Bratton runs a makeshift shelter out of the basement at Overcomer's Victory Church in St. Paul, where he is the pastor. He sees youths from Dakota County show up there, as well as at the shelter he oversees as a program manager at Avenues for Homeless Youth in Hennepin County.

Dakota County has limited shelter space for single adults, and no youth shelter. A steering committee of local religious leaders — which Bratton recently joined — is making plans to serve those populations, but they're in early stages.

Youth-serving organization The Link opened a drop-in center at an Apple Valley church last year, and so far has had nearly 70 youths come through. The center offers supplies and support but does not have beds for overnight stays.

Staff members at The Link work to find other places for youths to spend the night in an emergency — often in Hennepin or Ramsey counties, said Executive Director Beth Holger-Ambrose. But those who live in Dakota County may not want to leave.

"Sometimes you don't feel comfortable going to a different community," she said, "and then oftentimes those [shelters] are full."

Bratton envisions the bank building housing 10 to 12 young people. It would cost about $300,000 a year to operate, he said. Donors and volunteers are ready to help, Bratton said, but first he needs to secure a building.

Bratton has started looking at alternative sites in West St. Paul, South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights, but still has hopes for the bank.

"This is ridiculous to have a building sitting here this long," he said. "It's an increasing amount of young people that are experiencing homelessness, and we don't have anywhere for them to go."