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Controversial St. Paul day shelter to close on West 7th Street; here's what's next

A neighboring day shelter is preparing for an influx of traffic as the St. Paul Fire Department gets ready to return to the Freedom House space on West 7th Street.

ST PAUL, Minn. — As excitement builds for playoff hockey in downtown St. Paul — a few blocks down from the busy restaurants and bars of West 7th Street — there's a different kind of anticipation building.

"Honestly, I'm a little apprehensive and nervous," said Chris Michels, director of housing stabilization for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Michels' concerns stem from the loss of the Freedom House day shelter, which will close its doors on May 8. The shelter opened during the pandemic, but it became a source of controversy in 2021 after several residents and nearby business owners voiced concerns about public safety and crime. A group even filed a lawsuit against the shelter and the city, calling it a nuisance.

Kent Erdahl: "You're thinking about where those people are going to go?"

Chris Michels: "Correct. I think, in terms of volume, we can be prepared to take in the numbers. Can we effectively meet the needs of the people who are coming to us? That's where I take pause and wonder."

The building served as a fire station until 2010, and the fire department plans to return it to service by the end of the year. Deputy Chief Roy Mokosso says population growth in the last 12 years has increased fire and EMS call volumes, stretching its only other downtown station too thin.

"Resources are getting pulled from other areas of the city to respond to the downtown area," Mokosso said. "If we can keep resources in their response areas, we can improve response time across the city." 

But Mokosso says they are also aware that just because the day shelter is going away, it doesn't mean the needs of those who benefit from the shelter will, too.

"Roughly 60 percent of our unsheltered response is in the downtown area," he said.

In order to address that, he says SPFD hopes to dedicate some of their remodeled space to house a social worker response pilot program.

"The goal of the social worker response program is to coordinate efforts, both from police and fire/EMS, to those that can best link folks in need to long-term care," he said. "As opposed to relying on 911 services and the emergent need of EMS as their primary care."

Michels says she hopes that kind of program gains a permanent foothold.

"I think what excites me the most about the team approach is kind of the portable aspect of that team," she said. "They can move throughout the city to meet people in crisis, in need, where they're at."

But with another overnight shelter at the old Bethesda Hospital also in the process of closing down, Michels says she's concerned that the winding down of federal pandemic support will lead to less support all around.

Michels: "We were able to kind of move mountains with our pandemic response, but what causes me pause is all of those federal dollars are drying up."

Erdahl: "You just hope people aren't forgotten?" 

Michels: "Correct, and I feel like without the funding that is needed to solve the problems, our resources aren't proving to be super sustainable. We have profound concerns about that."

Listening House, which operates Freedom House, sent the following statement to KARE11 about closing: 

Listening House’s work is now shifting to managing the service transition as well as planning for the next steps to better meet the needs of the city, its businesses, and residents. We are collaborating with our partners and supporters to assess and develop what is viable. We will let you know as decisions come.

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