City officials explore zoning for shelters

by Elizabeth Smith

Homeless people living in Minneapolis could find shelter in places other than religious organizations, if a city ordinance passes later this year.
City officials met with Minneapolis residents and outreach workers Monday to discuss changing a law that dictates where emergency homeless shelters can be located. The meeting was the first of two community feedback gatherings planned for this summer to help City Council members Cam Gordon and Lisa Bender get public input on their plan.
As is, outside of a small sector of downtown Minneapolis, only religious institutions can operate homeless shelters, a practice Bender says is outdated.
City senior planner Shanna Sether said city officials looked at other cities of similar size throughout the U.S., including St. Paul, and found Minneapolis was the only city that required shelters to be housed in religious institutions.
Gordon, who has served on the council for nearly 10 years, said changing restrictions for homeless shelters has been a popular proposal during his terms. 
“This is a long-standing problem and something we are trying to walk into carefully,” he said. “We want to figure out what everyone’s ideal shelter situation is.”
The Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness does a street count of those suffering from homelessness every Tuesday. After last week’s count, the group found 207 unsheltered individuals. 
City officials also sought public input on residents’ ideas for a shelter’s aesthetics and amenities, the ideal location for a shelter and concerns they may have if a shelter moved into their neighborhood.
Community members said they’d like a shelter that would provide people with personal space and a properly trained staff.
Homelessness has been a reoccurring discussion at West Bank Community Coalition meetings, as the neighborhood association is searching for a way to meet the needs of its own homeless population. 
Phill Kelly, a board member of the organization, said the group has heard rumors about young homeless East African males, but he has not seen them on the streets of the West Bank neighborhoods.
Their invisibility is likely due to a close-knit East African community, which makes it easier for homeless people to find a place to sleep at night, even though they don’t have a home, said Joseph Desenclos, the street outreach program manager for nonprofit homelessness program St. Stephen’s Human Services.
The coalition is in discussion with the Dar Al Hijrah mosque on Cedar Avenue to potentially create a temporary warming house — an emergency shelter open from November to April — within the establishment, pending funding from the state and Hennepin County.
Because residents say a large portion of homeless people in Cedar-Riverside come from the East African community, Kelly said he wants them to have a culturally appropriate space, in contrast to the church shelters currently available.