West Bank community members seek homeless housing options

City restrictions block efforts to house the area’s growing homeless population.

Cedar-Riverside community members are beginning to look for a way to house their area’s growing homeless population.

The West Bank Community Coalition is hoping to give those in need of a place to stay for the winter a housing option, but the city’s strict zoning codes create a roadblock that could push the plans to next winter.

Earlier this month, members of the WBCC met at St. Stephen’s Shelter in Minneapolis to discuss the possibility of a temporary warming house in their neighborhood, which would be available exclusively to single men during the winter.

Mikkel Beckmen, director of Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness, said although measuring the number of homeless people in Cedar-Riverside is difficult, community members have noticed an increase.

But accommodating the homeless population is a complicated matter. Minneapolis zoning code requires that emergency shelters, including the warming houses, be in a religious institution’s place of assembly, like a church or a mosque.

Currently, there are three mosques the WBCC plans to reach out to for help, said Phil Kelly, the WBCC’s assistant director. A little over a year ago, one of them was damaged by a fire and has yet to be fully repaired, further limiting the number of potential warming house locations.

Ward 2 City Councilman Cam Gordon is working to make the zoning code for shelters less restrictive in Minneapolis. Gordon said he is looking at the zoning policies that cities like St. Paul have in hopes of making it easier to have emergency shelters in Minneapolis.

Gordon doesn’t have any specific plans yet, but he said anything he comes up with would take at least nine months to implement.

Beckmen agreed that there needs to be a change in the zoning policy.

“A lot of church structures are built to be places of worship and not designed to host people overnight,” he said. “So it’s challenging to provide a dignified, safe place in a church setting where it wasn’t built or constructed to act as a shelter.”

St. Stephens Human Services is a year-round shelter with an outreach team that provides resources to the local homeless population.

The team has received an increase in calls to the area from residents, business owners and Minneapolis police recently, said Monica Nilsson, the organization’s director of community engagement.

“Not only would [a shelter] benefit the homeless folks, but it would benefit the community,” Nilsson said.

But the idea could see some pushback from current residents.

In north Minneapolis, the shelter that the WBCC hopes to model their plan after, the River of Life’s shelter, experienced public opposition during its first two years, said Paul Verrette, development team lead for St. Stephen’s Human Services.

“People opening shelters often run into a general fear of people experiencing homelessness and having new people in the neighborhood,” he said.

Mohamed Jama, who is on the Board of Directors as a resident tenant, said adult single males seem to comprise the largest part of the area’s homeless population.

“We’d like to get as many organizations involved as possible. It’s our hope that this becomes a collaborative community-wide project,” the WBCC Executive Director, Mohamed Mohamed said.

Both Mohamed and Kelly hope they will find a place for the shelter this winter.

Janet Curiel, a Cedar-Riverside resident, said she supports the idea of a warming house, adding that winter is a dangerous time for the area’s homeless population.

“I think that we as a community need to address the needs of our people,” Curiel said.