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St. Paul council passes ordinance expanding zoning for daytime homeless shelters

The ordinance allows shelters to operate in more areas of the city, despite opposition from a coalition of businesses who've sued over the presence of Freedom House.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The St. Paul City Council approved a zoning ordinance on Wednesday allowing daytime homeless facilities to operate in more areas of the city, despite opposition from business owners on the West Seventh corridor.

The council adopted Ordinance 21-33 by a 7-0 vote, after brief discussion and comments by Council Member Rebecca Noecker. According to the language of the measure, the daytime shelters can house people overnight in the event of a wind chill advisory, and any such facility larger than 7,000 square feet must obtain a conditional use permit.

"I think this is a really critical use for those in our community who are most vulnerable," Noecker said during the meeting, "and this will allow us to provide day services to people throughout the city of St. Paul, which is something we've never been able to do before."

The ordinance spawned from discussion about Freedom House, a daytime shelter that has operated in an old fire station on West Seventh since November 2020 through an emergency COVID-19 zoning measure. Since it's larger than 7,000 square feet, Freedom House can apply for a conditional use permit to continue operations on that West Seventh site beyond the emergency ordinance. Molly Jalma, the executive director of the organization that runs Freedom House, told KARE 11 in a text message that she supported the new ordinance because "it would increase our options for delivering services and decrease density away from just one service-heavy area of town."

However, the issue of daytime shelters -- and specifically Freedom House -- has been a lightning rod for controversy in the West Seventh corridor. A lawyer representing a coalition of business owners sent a letter to the council opposing the ordinance, saying "the City should not rush through this Ordinance change without considering the economic and social impacts of the zoning change on residents and businesses, particularly in light of the experiences of West 7th residents and business with the Freedom House." 

These businesses, including Tom Reid's Hockey City Pub, are also suing the city of St. Paul, arguing there is "no basis" for the continued emergency ordinance that allows Freedom House to operate in a business district like West Seventh. The lawsuit alleges more than 100 incidents connected to the shelter, including "open drug use" and a "knife fight."

In October, prior to the lawsuit, Tom Reid's General Manager Kathy Gosiger shared some of these concerns with KARE 11.

"We had the homeless shelter move in down the street, and that's been nothing but sadness and a nightmare," Gosiger said last month. "With the vandalism and all, we've hired extra security for that."

In a statement, City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said the city has "received the complaint, and will provide a formal response." 

"The law is clear that experiencing homelessness is not a crime," Olson said. "As we have throughout this pandemic, we'll continue connecting individuals to support and services, while working with residents, workers, businesses, emergency responders and visitors to support our downtown as we rebuild."

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