Temporary housing in churches to offer relief from the cold in West St. Paul

courtesy Google Maps graphic courtesy Skyler Gabel Three churches in West St. Paul, St. Stephens, Augustana Lutheran and Salem Lutheran, will open their doors in December and January as temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness, after the city council approved interim use permits for the places of worship.

The West St. Paul City Council approved a number of interim use permits Nov. 26 that will allow three area churches to be temporary shelters in the upcoming months.

The permits came a month after the council adopted an ordinance related to temporary residential housing.

Mayor Jenny Halverson and council member Bob Pace were absent.

Community Development Director Jim Hartshorn said at the meeting that Matrix Housing Services requested an interim use permit for St. Stephens Church, 1575 Charlton St., and Augustana Lutheran Church, at 1400 Robert St. The permits are for temporary housing for the homeless in an R-1 district, which is zoned for single-family housing.

“Matrix Housing Services provides temporary housing for the homeless in churches throughout Dakota County from November through April,” said Hartshorn.

Its shelters, which rotate locations, typically operate out of any given church for 15 days. 

Per the application, Matrix is planning to operate out of St. Stephens Dec. 1 through 15, and Augustana Lutheran Jan. 12 through 26. 

Another church, Salem Lutheran Church, which is located at 11 Bernard St. and has provided temporary housing for those in need for a number of years, would be used for 30 days in January. Hartshorn said the church, in collaboration with Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul and not in connection with Matrix, is proposing to provide temporary shelter for five or six families that month.

The planning commission voted unanimously to approve the non-permanent, interim use permits for all three churches.


Pilot program

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Napier said the issue has been worked through for a year, and council members feel they have what they need to go forward with it as a pilot program.

“We’re calling this a pilot program because there’s a lot of unknowns,” he said. “We need to go through this a year and see if there’s anything that negatively affects our community, or just to feel how good this can be for us, for being part of helping out homelessness in the entire state.”

Napier said the fact that Salem Lutheran has been part of Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul’s program for a while, and the city was unaware, meaning it didn’t create any problems, is a good thing.  Interfaith Action contracts with the state for the work it does.

“We fully expect this to be successful,” he said.

Council member John Bellows said his only concern regarding the permit for Salem Lutheran Church was the length of time — 30 days rather than 15. He added he has mixed feelings about the program, because while it has been working well, it wasn’t in accordance with city code. 

Sara Liegl, the director of Project Home of Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, said the permit for Salem Lutheran requested the longer timeframe because the families to be housed there have young children.

“Most of these kids, it’s like 77 percent of our kids, are ages 12 and under — that’s a lot of school-aged kids,” she said. “To go every two weeks to different churches, to sleep at different places, is so hard.”

Napier thanked the churches for stepping up to help combat homelessness in the county. 

Subi Ambrose, executive director of Matrix Housing Services, said the organization appreciates all the time spent on the matter by the council.


The new ordinance

The council adopted the temporary housing ordinance that allows for the interim use permits at its Oct. 8 meeting.

City attorney Kori Land said the permits are restricted solely to buildings that are not residential or commercial, leaving an opening for churches or schools.

There are performance standards in the ordinance, such as time limits on operations, which would be in the winter months.

Operations cannot exceed more than 30 consecutive days, or 60 days each winter.

“We are very concerned about the safety of the homeless that would be occupying the space, because a church is not typical ... overnight residence,” Land said. “So, we are requiring some inspections by the building department and fire department to make sure the occupancy restriction number is complied with, as well that there are some life-health safety issues that have been addressed.”


–Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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