ST. CLOUD - Between towering piles of donated clothes and boxes of prepackaged snacks, Lois Rengel helped residents of a homeless shelter in St. Cloud sign up for health insurance in early May.
Rengel, of the nonprofit Catholic Charities, is one of the many service providers to regularly visit the Lincoln Center shelter in east St. Cloud. Someday, organizers hope, providers will have their own private offices to meet with clients. But for now, the makeshift office is a kitchen table in the shelter's storage room.
"It's here or outside," said Harry Fleegel, who runs the shelter with his wife, Mary, under the nonprofit they created four years ago, Homeless Helping Homeless.
The city's zoning board recently approved the nonprofit's request to increase the center's capacity from 19 to 25 despite complaints from neighbors and a number of overdue improvements ordered by the city in the past year.
The zoning board's approval was contingent on a new 2-1 resident-to-staff ratio. But the nonprofit is appealing that decision at the June 6 St. Cloud City Council meeting in favor of a less burdensome 6-1 resident-to-staff ratio. If the council wishes to overturn the zoning board's decision, it would require at least five affirmative votes from the council's seven members.
The nonprofit also must raise more than $65,000 to make the improvements, which include installing a sprinkler system, before it can embark on plans to install a more secure entry, private meeting rooms and build individual lockable sleeping modules, similar to Avivo Village in Minneapolis.
If the improvements are not made, the city could force the shelter to revert to a homeless day center that doesn't allow overnight residents. That, said Harry Fleegel, would be devastating.
"They're human beings. They deserve to be treated well. They don't deserve to lose fingers from frostbite," he said.
From 2019 to 2020, the number of unsheltered homeless people grew from 29 to 134 in the three counties St. Cloud is in — Stearns, Benton and Sherburne — and the pandemic has merely exacerbated that in many cities. The Lincoln Center offers a place to stay while residents look for more permanent housing such as assisted-living facilities, chronic inebriate housing or treatment centers, or group homes.
"A lot of these places have waiting lists," Fleegel said. "But they can be here."
In the shelter's first 15 months, it served 140 people. About one-third of the residents moved on to find housing in apartments or group homes. A handful went to treatment or to jail. And about 25 people came and went. And with a capacity of 19 people, the shelter has been turning away about five people each night.
"We've been full from the very first day we opened," Fleegel said. "Every day."
The increase to 25 members aligns with recommendations for the maximum number of overnight residents at safe havens, according to city officials. With the capacity increase, the zoning board also mandated the center have on-site at all times a project and case manager, as well as the 2-1 resident-to-staff ratio, which should help with problems described by neighbors at a recent city meeting.
"My staff is getting really fed up," said Joann Hall, who manages the Casey's gas station near the shelter.
Hall's employees have routinely dealt with people from the shelter who have shoplifted, harassed customers and even thrown hot food items at staff, Hall said at a public hearing.
Jeremy Frey, who owns nearby Lincoln Depot restaurant and bar, said his employees are often scared to walk to their vehicles at night. Since the shelter opened, he frequently finds drug paraphernalia in the establishment's restrooms, he said.
The number of police calls in the area near the center has skyrocketed since it opened, even as calls citywide haven't increased significantly. But the increase in calls did not correlate to an increase in violent crime in the area; rather the highest calls for service were for unwanted persons, trespassing and behavioral health checks, according to data from St. Cloud Police Department.
Fleegel admits the fallout from the low-barrier shelter isn't always pretty. The St. Cloud area has a number of transitional or emergency shelters, but many are considered high barrier, meaning they do not allow people who are intoxicated, disruptive due to mental health issues or who have pets. The Lincoln Center accepts any adult — as long as it hasn't reached capacity.
"It's people who have nowhere else to go. We're their last resort," said Fleegel, who argued the people needing shelter wouldn't be milling around the neighborhood if his staff didn't have to turn people away each night. "All those people who argued against expanding the capacity, they should argue for us expanding."
The zoning process — and neighborhood resistance — laid bare a number of deeper issues. Zoning Board Member John Mathews said that it isn't appropriate for the Zoning Board to be trying to solve a "very complex social justice and public health crisis."
"This is, in my mind, not really a land-use issue about a particular parcel," he said. "This is a public policy issue and it's astounding to me that it's been in front of our board for a year and I have yet to see our mayor or our City Council do anything about it."
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis said social services are the responsibility of the county and funded by the state, although the city has acted as a conduit to deliver federal funds to nonprofits to help house homeless people.
"You know, I've asked myself the question many times: With a $9 billion surplus ... where are the resources for that?" Kleis said. "Homelessness doesn't end at the border of St. Cloud."
The Lincoln Shelter is run entirely through donations, from food, furniture and clothing, to funds to pay for electricity, heat and rent — and maybe soon a new sprinkler system.
"We do have a lot of support," Fleegel said. "I am proud of the community."