Another spat broke out in St. Paul recently over a day shelter for the city’s poorest residents, with a lawsuit, fliers, billboards, and public hearings at City Hall. It marks at least the third major battle in the last eight years over the future of Listening House, a nonprofit connecting unhoused people with everything from social services to jumper cables to a safe place to smoke Marlboros. Of all the city’s “locally unwanted land uses” — known in the trade as LULUs because they are often opposed by neighbors — shelters for people with nowhere else to go are perhaps the most controversial.
That said, this latest case is different. The City Council has offered over a million dollars in tax-increment financing for a new and improved location, the old Red’s Savoy pizza shop and one of the most geographically isolated spots in the city. Given that Listening House has managed to survive COVID, operating a shelter on Dayton’s Bluff without too much commotion, I’m optimistic this new location could work out for everyone.
Filling a gap
In my nine years on the St. Paul Planning Commission, the 2014 Listening House case was the most difficult vote I had to make. It was tough because both sides had compelling arguments and the legal issues — a rare “determination of similar use” made by a city administrator — were vague enough to allow a judgment call. One one hand, we had a well-documented litany of disturbing complaints from neighbors, and a rather extreme land use that was almost entirely unregulated. On the other hand, there was a nonprofit trying to help people who desperately needed a place to go. The end result, decided by one vote, was to apply some conditions to the shelter like limits on hours and the scale of operations.
It didn’t end there. Listening House sued the city and, a year later, the two sides settled out of court, agreeing on a more lenient list of conditions. It was just the beginning of an ongoing saga that’s kept the nonprofit bouncing around the edges of downtown St. Paul like a bingo ball.
One of the many ironies of the current situation is that, if circumstances had played out just a little bit differently, the geography of unhoused services might be reversed. Listening House has been around since the mid-1980s, but spent most of that time tucked in off old Main Street next to the Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day shelter. Their current odyssey stems from the expansion of that complex into a larger, far nicer facility.
Years ago, when the Catholic Charities shelter expansion was proposed, there was even a public debate at City Hall about where the new, larger building should go. Some city leaders wanted the new location to be nearer to Railroad Island, closer to the proposed Listening House site. Catholic Charities rightfully pushed back, preferring to remain at their central spot a block from the Xcel Energy Center and many downtown services.
When the location was finalized, one overlooked effect was that it displaced Listening House, which began searching for a new place for unhoused folks to hang out. What Listening House does is important because overnight shelters like Catholic Charities forces many residents out the doors every morning, putting people out on the street with few places to go. Listening House is one of those rare daytime safe havens.
As the Listening House director, Molly Jalma, said during her July City Council testimony, “Right now there’s nowhere in St. Paul on evenings and weekends for people to just sit down without potential harassment; we fill that gap.”
The Freedom House Fiasco
The other part of the story was that, during the latter parts of the pandemic, which put all kinds of stress on downtowns, Listening House opened up a temporary facility in an old city fire station on West 7th Street — on the other end of downtown. The shelter, dubbed Freedom House, led to all kinds of complaints that mingled with business owners’ ongoing anxieties, like crime and COVID. At one point, there was a lawsuit by neighbors and businesses over that location, featuring a laundry list of nuisance complaints.
That facility, which was always meant to be temporary, closed in May, and now Listening House has raised money to find a new home, hopefully before the worst of winter weather arrives.
Island of urbanity
“Red would be spinning in his grave,” one former employee told me the other day, describing the irony of Listening House’s proposal to use the former Red’s Savoy building east of downtown.
It’s ironic because while Red Schoenheider, the founder and namesake of the Red’s Savoy pizza chain was perhaps not known for his progressive politics, he had one thing in common with the folks who run Listening House: an otherworldly resolve. Red’s Savoy clung to the corner of East 7th and Lafayette like a kitten to a tree branch for over 50 years, as Red himself spent nearly every waking hour keeping the establishment going, all the way up until his final day in 2017. And he did it despite occupying one of the most marginal pieces of land in St. Paul.
A century ago, this part of town was bursting with industry and railroad tracks. From today’s Lowertown to Railroad Island and the East Side, there was a hodgepodge of land use ranging from lumberyards to apartments. (Before that, if you can believe it, it was a bourgeois enclave of mansions surrounding a park.) In the mid-20th century, this stretch of St. Paul was particularly ravished by freeway engineering, with the I-94, I-35E and Highway 52 converging here in roughly the same spot.
As a result, East 7th and Lafayette forms an island of urbanity at the precise end point of the Highway 52 northbound lanes — surrounded on nearly all sides by freeways and parking lots. Before the Lafayette Bridge was redesigned, hundreds of cars a day would decelerate from 60 miles per hour, almost dead-ending at the door of the building. I often thought that Savoy resembled the Rock of Gibraltar, because seemingly every six months or so a driver would hurtle straight into the side of the building like an ocean wave. It got so bad that a 1-foot concrete wall was eventually built along the sidewalk, to prevent the carnage. I was always amazed that the building had survived, in my mind, due to Red Schoenheider’s Ahab-like resilience.
So it’s rather a suitable irony that the Red’s property would become a home for Listening House, also an organization that has survived for decades despite seemingly all forces arrayed against it.
Turning a new leaf
The present solution, put forward by both Listening House and the City Council — in this case, acting as the Housing and Redevelopment Authority — uses city money to help build a better building for the organization, including a protected place to smoke cigarettes on what was once the Red’s Savoy parking lot (one of the last holdouts against the city’s 2006 smoking ban).
To my mind, the only real downside is that the streets and sidewalks around East 7th are terribly designed.
Even now, the state Department of Transportation is completing a redesign for a key stretch of East 7th, connecting the East Side to downtown and going just past this location. I would sure hope that someone could find money for safer streets — traffic calming, bump outs, wider protected sidewalks — that might ensure that folks walking and biking to and from the new building won’t get mauled by traffic speeding from the onramps.
A place to go, again
I’m in absolutely no position to comment on the publicized lawsuit pushed by a property and business owners clustered at the east end of downtown St. Paul. But I can tell you that, since the original Listening House lawsuit spat revolving around the Swede Hollow and the First Lutheran Church, complaints at that location have largely mellowed out. Director Molly Jalma attends nearly every Dayton’s Bluff community meeting, and many of the nuisance issues that would have been problems years ago have been worked out.
“In the last few months, since Freedom House closed, things have been really quiet in the neighborhood,” said East Side Council Member Jane Prince back in July, referring to the shelter facility in her ward. “People were concerned that it might get difficult again [but] I feel like things are moving in the right direction.”
The whole situation is unfortunate in the first place, because, as I described a few months ago, the 2020 COVID pandemic revealed that problems like homelessness, that seem endemic to our society, are soluble with the right amount of federal money. But until that happens, we need nonprofits and city leaders to fill the gaping void for folks in poverty. This is what that looks like.
In his 2017 Pioneer Press obituary, Jess Fleming wrote about Red’s work habits: “Red’s Savoy Pizza was closed on Christmas, but Schoenheider would go in anyway to do inventory and give some of his buddies, guys he knew didn’t have anywhere to go, a holiday gathering.”
Well, that’s almost the exact role of the Listening House organization. Unless I’m wrong in my legal prognostications, the only result of the billboards and lawsuit is going to be a delay in the construction of the new facility until after the wintertime, leaving folks out in the cold with nowhere to go.