The future of a drop-in center for the homeless in St. Paul lies with the city planning commission, which will weigh the needs of this vulnerable population with the complaints of local businesses and neighbors over an increase in nuisance behavior and crimes.

The debate over Freedom House at 296 W. 7th St. is the latest chapter of a continuing struggle for the city and Listening House, which operates two drop-in shelters for St. Paul's neediest residents. The first drop-in center's move to Dayton's Bluff in 2017 led to neighbor complaints and a legal skirmish.

St. Paul sought to limit the number of visitors served each day to 20, instead of the more than 100 served each day. A federal judge blocked those restrictions in 2018.

After the pandemic struck last year, Mayor Melvin Carter and the City Council gave Freedom House emergency authorization to open in the W. 7th Street neighborhood. Freedom House offers services such as showers, private bathrooms, food and sleeping spaces seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

With the city's emergency authorization expiring, the Planning Commission could change the zoning to allow the shelter to continue operation. Last week, commissioners voted to extend the public comment period, with a second public hearing planned for May 28.

At the height of the pandemic, there were about 380 homeless and unsheltered people in St. Paul, according to Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher. Overnight shelters had to reduce capacity, and daytime hangout spaces such as libraries or cafes shuttered.

But in a year when restaurants have faced unprecedented challenges, business owners see the day shelter as another blow.

Tom Reid's Hockey City Pub beefed up their security and added more cameras after a slew of incidents involving the bar, said general manager Kathy Gosiger. People have come into the bar kicking and screaming in the foyer. Others urinate and defecate right outside, and Gosiger once found a woman smoking methamphetamine in the bar's bathroom.

"We had a man come in here threatening my younger manager. He had a knife. She asked him to leave and he went outside … screaming and yelling and waving his knife at all the people that were sitting along this window," Gosiger said.

For the first time, Jester Concepts restaurant group owner Brent Frederick and his staff noticed "dine and dashers" at Parlour St. Paul — customers who eat on the patio or come into the restaurant to order a drink and leave when the server turns away. Frederick said restaurant staff didn't immediately suspect the homeless population, until one of the managers chased after some deadbeat customers and they headed into Freedom House.

"Our staff is not feeling comfortable going to their cars; they don't feel comfortable to take out the trash," Frederick said.

There's been an increase in reported crime in the area, said St. Paul police public information officer Steve Linders. This year, there have been 19 serious crimes, compared with eight in the same period in 2020.

The department has increased police presence in the neighborhood, with officers on foot and bicycle, checking in at businesses and Freedom House with assistance from Ramsey County sheriff's deputies. Calls for service tend to be disturbances and disorderly conduct, said Linders.

Molly Jalma, interim director of Listening House, which operates Freedom House, said she is sympathetic to the business owners' concerns. Much of the organization's work focuses on treating homeless people, whom they call guests, with dignity and respect. In addition to helping with hygiene, Freedom House offers other services including mental health screenings and vaccination clinics, Jalma said. Those who are under the influence of substances are given services as long as they are not a danger to themselves or others.

During the day Freedom House staff take walks around the building or block every half-hour to every hour, picking up trash or helping people.

"We want to be good neighbors. I don't know if we're going to be welcomed, but I would like to be accepted into the community," Jalma said.

Susan Adair, who has owned a condo across the street from the Freedom House building since 2004, said she's never seen her neighborhood like this. People have forced their way into her building and sleep under tarps in the yard.

Jalma said Freedom House does not condone that behavior, though it's likely those individuals weren't able to stay in an overnight shelter at that time.

Adair now carries pepper spray so she can still walk outside.

"I'm not a fearful person and I refuse to stay in my house and live my life in fear," Adair said. "But I am certainly more cautious."

Jalma encouraged neighbors to reach out to her about their experiences or come into Freedom House for a tour.

"We don't want to have a negative footprint," Jalma said. "But we also are a part of the community and the guests who use our facility are community members. When we talk about NIMBY [not in my backyard] politics and everything, the question is, whose backyard is it? Because I think some of the backyard belongs to our guests, because they live here too."

Since the day shelter's opening, the city has enhanced cleaning and trash pickup in addition to the added law enforcement support, Tincher said.

The Department of Safety and Inspections is in the process of hiring street team ambassadors who can help individuals get in contact with support services. The city expects four ambassadors to be deployed in mid-May, with an eventual total of 16 throughout downtown, said department director Ricardo Cervantes.

Last week, newly appointed Planning Commissioner Stephen Moore accused the business owners of lacking empathy, and he shared a story about his brother, once a star athlete and now experiencing mental health issues and homelessness.

Frederick said it was unfair to accuse business owners of not being empathetic.

"Right now restaurants need to survive. We're not trying to make money. We're just trying not to close right now," Frederick said.

Gosiger and Frederick do not want the day shelter to stay on W. 7th permanently. They want more community involvement in Freedom House's future, and they are meeting weekly with other businesses to discuss their concerns.

"We know that there's a problem and we care deeply. We really do," Gosiger said. "But having these people live on our street, is that really fair to them?"

Zoë Jackson covers St. Paul for the Star Tribune. She previously covered young voters through the Report For America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation. 612-673-7112 • @zoemjack