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Homeless shelter gets city support, despite complaints from Minneapolis neighbors

Despite  opposition, a City Council committee decided that leaving the homeless on the streets poses a bigger threat than opening a shelter in a church.

The River of Life Lutheran Church has operated a winter homeless shelter for the past two years.

The neighbors came to City Hall ready to prove their point, armed with pictures of public urination, drug activity, overflowing trash bins and stories of stolen lawn furniture.

They did not want another winter of living next door to a homeless shelter.

After hearing, though, from opponents and supporters of the overnight shelter, members of the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee decided that leaving the homeless on the streets poses a bigger threat than opening a shelter in a church.

“These 40 beds will seem like nothing when a tent city pops up,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman, who shared her opinion that nobody wants to sleep on a mat on the floor.  “There would be bigger problems if we didn’t have shelters.”

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For the last two winters, River of Life Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis — in conjunction with St. Stephen’s Human Services — has operated a homeless shelter for men. The shelter operates from November through April.

“It’s not comfortable when people are urinating in front of you and sucking on their bottles,” said Susan Breedlove, a longtime neighborhood resident, who accused church leaders of being unresponsive to complaints.

“We haven’t been a good enough neighbor,” said Jeff Skrenes who serves as president of the church council.

He told City Council members that the church is adding additional outdoor lighting, two cameras and a digital video recorder to improve the situation. The congregation also has arranged for the removal of extra trash bins and will have trash picked up twice a week.

An updated management plan for the shelter requires the hiring of off-duty police officers, as in the past. Shelter officials also promised not to admit late-night arrivals, unless they are brought to the shelter in a police vehicle.

“The guests are very kind, meek people. Very humble people,” said Damien Jones, who works at the shelter. He, too, came with photos. One showed a man unfolding a sheet as he prepared his floor mat for the night.

The man works everyday as a chef and sleeps at the shelter during the winter, Jones explained. Like many, that client signs up for another night at the shelter before leaving in the morning.

“This is a man urinating. You can see this from our front door,” said neighbor Lori Spangler as she shared her photos. Spangler said the men traveling through her neighborhood are confrontational and frighten her. ”When the shelter is not operating, we don’t go through this.”

“I don’t think there’s a safety issue because they are so grateful,” said shelter employee Angela Bennett, referring to those who sleep at the church.

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She described men arriving at the shelter soaking wet from a day on the streets and the challenge of getting them into dry clothes and warmed up. “I don’t feel fear when I’m there,” she added.

Between Jan. 1, 2010, and Oct. 10, 2012, 160 police calls came from the area around the shelter, but only three of them were related to the shelter, Sgt. Paul Hatle of the 4th Precinct told the committee.

“The police calls weigh in a lot with me,” said Council Meg Tuthill. She recalled that when her own neighborhood was filling up with halfway houses, the neighbors decided to get to know the people involved by hosting meetings and serving as volunteers.

By law, overnight homeless shelters in the city are allowed only at religious institutions unless they are in downtown Minneapolis. This policy has placed homeless shelters in residential neighborhoods.

“This is a challenging and difficult situation,” said Council Member Cam Gordon. “We need to work harder to find other options besides the churches.”

“The way to bring people up and out is to integrate them with people who are successful,” said Goodman, who represents a ward with 30,000 downtown residents and six homeless shelters.

She described one homeless shelter that sits across the street from $500,000 condos and a business owned by her husband.

“All of us do better when all boats rise,” said Goodman, who promised to host a symposium on homelessness within the next six weeks to explain the magnitude of the problem in Minneapolis.

“This [the River of Life shelter] is a minor piece of what’s going on,” she said. “We could do 10 more of these shelters.”

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The full City Council is expected to approve the River of Life shelter on Oct. 26.