Ramsey County officials are considering opening another temporary homeless shelter, this one in a vacant dorm at Luther Seminary in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood.

The temporary shelter would serve more than 70 women and couples, who are now housed in hotel rooms paid for by the county. Leasing the dorm would be more cost effective than continuing to pay for hotel rooms, Ramsey County Manager Ryan O'Connor said, and it would create more stability and sense of community for residents than a hotel.

The county is aiming to open the shelter in December. Officials haven't said how much the lease would cost or how long it would run.

More than 200 people attended a virtual community meeting Tuesday night, peppering county leaders with questions. Many shared support for the plan, while others asked about adequate staffing and security for the surrounding neighborhood.

Several county commissioners attended the meeting, including County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter, who represents the seminary area. They spent most of the time listening to the public.

"This warms my heart when I hear the acceptance and tolerance," Commissioner Mary Jo McGuire said. "Thank you for living your values."

County and St. Paul leaders are scrambling to expand the east metro's shelter capacity as the number of people sleeping outside in tents has spiked from a couple of dozen last year to hundreds this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout have exacerbated the affordable housing shortage, county leaders said. "On any given night, we have seen up to 300 individuals spend the night outdoors," O'Connor said. "It's hard to stomach."

The temporary shelter at Luther Seminary would be staffed 24 hours a day and residents would sign a conduct pledge to refrain from drug use, said Keith Lattimore, Ramsey County's new housing stability director.

Staffers are trained in de-escalation and equipped to deal with people struggling with chemical dependency and mental health issues, Lattimore said. Most residents are grateful for the shelter and assistance and don't want to jeopardize that, he added.

County officials approached Luther Seminary this fall about temporarily leasing the vacant 77-room Stub Hall. Heidi Droegemueller, Luther's vice president for seminary relations, said that welcoming the homeless is consistent with the school's values.

"We feel called to use our facilities to care for neighbors in need during these trying times, consistent with our welcome statement, which urges us to be faithful to our Christian call to be neighbors one to another, and our values of being inclusive and community-oriented," she said.

The seminary already had plans to sell a portion of its campus, including Stub Hall, for redevelopment into affordable, market-rate and senior housing. That hasn't changed, said Droegemueller, stressing that a lease with Ramsey County would be short-term and designed to help homeless residents through the winter.

The St. Paul City Council would need to approve an interim-use permit before Stub Hall could be used as a temporary shelter.

In October, the county signed a $1.2 million, 18-month lease with M Health Fairview to turn the Bethesda Hospital building in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood into a temporary 100-bed shelter next month. It would be a low-barrier shelter to house people who have been unsuccessful in other shelter settings and often battle addictions. The county has promised 24-hour security and staffing there.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037