The St. Paul City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to allow more drop-in day shelters for people experiencing homelessness, days after a group of residents and business owners sued the city over an existing shelter.
Under the changes to city code that the council approved, daytime shelters less than 7,000 square feet will be classified as a "civic and institutional use," according to a city staff report. Larger shelters, such as Freedom House on W. 7th Street — the subject of the pending lawsuit — would require a conditional use permit to open and would not be allowed in traditional neighborhood districts.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the W. 7th Street area, expressed her support for the ordinance and thanked her colleagues for their work on expanding services for the homeless.
"I think this is a really critical use for members of our community who are the most vulnerable," Noecker said, "and this will allow us to provide day shelters to people throughout the city of St. Paul, which is something we've never been able to do before."
Freedom House, which opened in January, was seen as a needed salve for a spike in homelessness amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who could count on a warm library or coffee shop had nowhere to go when those spaces shuttered for weeks or months at a time, and widespread economic pressures made vulnerable people even more so.
Some began to live and sleep in unsafe outdoor encampments, including in and around downtown St. Paul.
In November 2020, Mayor Melvin Carter and the council gave Freedom House emergency authorization to operate in the W. 7th Street neighborhood.
City staff found the day shelter model — which offers showers, restrooms, food and a place to rest — to have public health and safety benefits for people experiencing homelessness. But staff also found an increase in crime near Freedom House.
For those working and living near the shelter, its presence in the neighborhood has presented a slew of nuisance crimes that they say affect local businesses and quality of life. They have been vocal in their opposition, reporting safety concerns and the need for a consistent law enforcement presence in the neighborhood.
On Nov. 5, a group of business owners and residents filed a lawsuit against the city of St. Paul that seeks damages and the suspension of services at Freedom House until more safety standards are implemented.
Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112