Listening House dilemma to go before St. Paul City Council


Dayton’s Bluff neighbors living near Listening House, a nonprofit that operates out of First Lutheran Church at 463 Maria Ave. serving those who are homeless, have appealed a St. Paul Planning Commission decision that allows the organization to keep operating. The issue will now go before the St. Paul City Council. • courtesy of Google Maps

Dayton’s Bluff struggles with homeless service center in neighborhood

 

Almost six months after Listening House began operating in First Lutheran Church in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, neighbors and the organization are still struggling with how to live together.

Listening House is a nonprofit that helps people who are homeless. It serves as a day shelter and partners with other organizations to help people with alcohol or chemical dependence. 

The organization moved into First Lutheran Church, at 463 Maria Ave., from downtown St. Paul this summer and neighbors have reported multiple issues with people defecating and urinating on private property, being loud and intoxicated and other issues. 

After months of complaints from neighbors, attempts at mediation, and multiple meetings and public hearings, the St. Paul Zoning Committee, an advisory committee to the St. Paul Planning Commission, recommended granting an appeal by Rene and Kim Lerma, neighbors of Listening House. 

The appeal would reverse the zoning administrator’s decision to allow Listening House to operate out of First Lutheran Church. 

However, the latest St. Paul Planning Commission meeting, which took place Oct. 20, did not grant the appeal to reverse the zoning administrator’s decision.

Instead, the Planning Commission revised the conditions Listening House must follow to work out of the church, and allowed the organization to continue to operate.

The conditions include limiting its hours of operations to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; ensuring guests have left the area after the site has closed and providing bus fare for them; Listening House staff being on site two hours before and two hours after operating hours; and that the organization operates in a “low profile” manner.

The commission also said there can be no consumption of alcohol or controlled substances on First Lutheran properties; that the organization must provide notice of incidents by guests on a shared Google site; there can be no outdoor patio; Listening House will be limited to 20 guests per day; and that staff must review, on a daily basis, camera footage and an online neighbor log of incidents by Listening House guests. 

 

Nobody’s happy

Following the Planning Commission’s Oct. 20 decision, both neighbors and the Listening House itself appealed the Planning Commission’s decision, meaning the issue will now be brought before the St. Paul City Council, though no date has yet been set on which the council will take up the appeals.

The Lermas, who live behind First Lutheran Church, appealed on the grounds that Listening House does not follow zoning code regarding accessory use to a church.

In their appeal, they list zoning code that reads, “There shall be no detriments to the residential character of the neighborhood due to noise, odor, smoke ... or any other annoyance resulting from the home occupation,” highlighting the last phrase.

The Lermas said, “The ‘annoyances’ that the Planning Commission failed to adequately consider ... have become a responsibility for the neighbors of Dayton’s Bluff to absorb, endure, document, intervene and problem solve in a manner that is entirely unrealistic for people living, working and raising families on nearby blocks.”

They added, “Listening House’s presence is not ‘low profile,’” as required by the Planning Commission’s conditions laid out on Oct. 20.

In its appeal of the Oct. 20 decision and revised conditions, Listening House said there is an “error in imposing conditions on use of First Lutheran Church and its tenant that are vague, overbroad, and discriminatory.”

In a Nov. 8 interview, Listening House Executive Director Cheryl Peterson said the organization is willing to work with neighbors and the city to find a situation that works for all.

“In the short run, we just want to be able to serve people who are homeless, disadvantaged and lonely,” Peterson said.

 

Trying to find a balance

A letter to the city from First Lutheran Church Pastor Chris Olson Bingea says the church, since it’s founding in 1854, has always been a “friend of the homeless,” explaining why it partnered with Listening House and continues to support it being at the church.

She said the church has worked with those in need for years, serving free breakfast for 300 people every Sunday and hosting a wellness center at the church where people can come in for a free meal and free nursing services through the nursing department at Metropolitan State University.

City documents include letters from eight neighbors who describe feeling unsafe walking in Swede Hollow Park, due to seeing more tents and encampments popping up. The letters also say property owners are struggling to rent their homes and are frustrated with the lack of prior notice that was given before Listening House moved in. They also say there is a general feeling of a lack of safety in the neighborhood. 

While many of the neighbors’ letters state they do not have an issue with helping those in need, instead they question whether an organization like Listening House should  be operating in a residential neighborhood. 

 

Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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