Minneapolis might loosen shelter requirements

A new ordinance would allow locations other than places of worship to house shelters.

Melissa Steinken

Minneapolis could change its rules about where homeless shelters can be located, which some leaders say are too strict. 
 
Minneapolis City Council members might amend old ordinances to allow for shelters to be built without a religious affiliation and to add more small emergency shelters and larger overnight shelters throughout the city. 
 
Officials said the current ordinance limits space within existing homeless shelters and prevents the city from increasing the number of available beds.
 
“It seems like we have had more need than we can accommodate,” said Ward 2 Council member Cam Gordon. “And we think there are probably other people sleeping at a friend’s house or staying with family that would be considered homeless.”
 
Shelters are required to be within about a four-block area located near Loring Park or must be a part of a religious institution. Of the 16 facilities in Hennepin County, 14 are located in Minneapolis.
 
Homeless shelters near transit stations in commercial areas of the city tend to be the easiest to access for homeless people, said Gail Dorfman, executive director of Saint Stephen’s Human Services shelter.
 
Maximum occupancy for overnight shelters is 150 people, and emergency shelters — which allow for stays of up to 30 days — have a maximum occupancy of 32 people.
 
“The problem we’re looking to solve is that there are too few shelter beds to meet the ongoing and increasing need,” Gordon said in a November newsletter.
 
To prevent high concentration of homeless shelters in one area, the proposal would require a distance of 1,000 feet between shelters.
 
The highest concentration of homeless shelters is near the north edge of downtown and the downtown Macy’s, Gordon said.
 
The proposal would also ease the burden on churches, which have traditionally offered space to the homeless.
 
“We’re basically in the basement of a church refectory,” Dorfman said. 
 
She said officials should be focusing on improving current shelters instead of trying to build more.
 
Saint Stephen’s is one of three remaining church-based shelters on the south side of Minneapolis, she said, adding that it reaches full capacity every night.
 
And many shelters, like Saint Stephen’s lack accessibility for the disabled homeless population, Dorfman said.
 
The ordinance aligns with research the city has done on the homeless population, said Lisa Thornquist, research director for Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness 
 
“It’s hard to site a shelter,” she said. “It’s really hard to think that a church or mosque or synagogue should be taking this on when really social services should be taking this on.”
 
Even though the new ordinance will add services and space for the homeless, shelters will continue to be in high-demand during emergency situations, Thornquist said. 
 
But the ordinance is a step in the right direction, she said.
 
“Now, under our 10-year plan to end homelessness, we really believe we have the systems in place to prevent homelessness,” Thornquist said.
 
The full council will vote on the ordinance on Dec. 11.