Zoned Out

God visited Pastor Ann Sandell in a dream, telling her to shelter the homeless
Daniel Corrigan

Last winter Ann Sandell, pastor of the charismatic Christian Love Power Church in Minneapolis, received a message from God. In her dream she saw a hungry, homeless man in need of help. The green-and-white tiles on the third story of Sandell's church also flashed across her mind's eye. Mattresses lined the floor.

The next morning Sandell interpreted the late-night vision to mean that the Love Power Church should dedicate its three-story brick building on the West Bank near the University of Minnesota to serving the homeless. "It's not unusual for me to get dreams that I feel are the voice of God," explains Sandell, whose church shares space with the Children's Gospel Mission. "The vision wasn't like something real sharp, but to me it was a sign to go in this direction and that God was with us."

Since February, Sandell and the Love Power Church have worked with St. Stephen's Shelter, a longtime provider of homeless services run by a church in south Minneapolis, to transform the pastor's dream into reality. Mary Gallini, the day shelter coordinator at St. Stephen's, took the lead in designing a program that would provide shelter for 25 homeless men from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., seven days a week. Residents would be required to sign up for at least a 30-day stay at Love Power Church, hold down a job, save 40 percent of their earnings toward permanent housing, and attend classes focusing on life skills such as personal finance and nutrition. In exchange the men would receive a roof over their heads, a mat on which to sleep, and a hot meal at the end of each day. The end goal: to propel single, working adults into affordable homes of their own.

"We feel that God gave us the building and he gave it to us to use for a good purpose," says Sandell. "It shouldn't just be used for Sunday and Wednesday worship."

To operate the shelter for the first year, St. Stephen's and the Love Power Church lined up almost $200,000 in funding through Hennepin County, the United Way, and the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning; in addition, residents would be expected to pay a weekly fee of $20. Gallini and Sandell, along with other church members and advocates for the homeless, also spent months attending community meetings trying to appease area residents and businesses concerned about crime and loitering. By the end of the summer they had received not only the blessing of the West Side Citizens' Coalition, but also the guarded endorsement of the Cedar-Riverside Business Association. With these tough steps behind them, Sandell and Gallini hoped to have the shelter up and running by January, just in time for winter.

Then last month the 25-bed shelter ran into a force more powerful than God: the Minneapolis Zoning Code. The church's application for a permit to operate the program was rejected by zoning administrator David Dacquisto on the grounds that it did not constitute a homeless shelter, but rather "supportive housing," which is permissible only in residential properties.

The decision has infuriated Minneapolis homeless advocates. They point out that the Minneapolis Zoning Code defines supportive housing, in part, as "a facility that provides housing for 24 hours per day." Love Power would be open for only 14 hours each day.

"The city has wrongly determined this shelter to be a supportive housing project," says Mikkel Beckmen, a program officer for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a nonprofit group that works to establish housing programs coupled with social services for low-income people. "It is an emergency shelter, and nothing about it smacks of supportive housing."

"How dare they call 25 mats on the floor that have to be picked up every day housing?" asks Gallini. "We've got all this momentum going forward and then the city is getting in the way."

Dacquisto says that two aspects of the Love Power shelter compelled him to label it supportive housing: It works with a fixed group of men, and it offers program services. Dacquisto maintains that despite the definition in the zoning code, being open 24 hours is not a requirement for supportive housing. "If all the other elements are present, you're not an overnight shelter just because you're not open 24 hours," he says.

City council member Joan Campbell, whose Second Ward includes the West Bank, supports Dacquisto's decision. "I have no problem with the shelter, but I have a problem with putting a shelter where it's illegal in the zoning code," she says.

Gallini, with the help of Tom Streitz, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, is now in the process of appealing the decision to the Zoning Board of Adjustments, a citizen review board. A hearing will be held on December 13 at city hall. If that body agrees with the zoning administrator's decision, Gallini and company will then have one last opportunity to make their case before the city council.

Housing advocates worry that if the decision stands it will set a dangerous precedent. "The potential impact is that it would be almost impossible to site any future beds in the city of Minneapolis and all those that are already out there would be at risk," says Streitz. He and others note that just last year the City/County Task Force on Homelessness determined that 100 more beds per night were needed for homeless single adults in Hennepin County (currently there are some 340 beds available for single adults, and another 350 "secure waiting" spots, which provide space, but no bed, for one night at a time). "This threatens that goal and the commitment of the city in its entirety," claims Streitz.

In recent years St. Stephen's Shelter, one of the few shelters that admits people on a daily basis, has turned away an average of 30 people per night. One of the impetuses for starting the Love Power shelter was to deal with that overflow. But under Dacquisto's definition, homeless advocates say, St. Stephen's activities would also qualify as supportive housing, and therefore violate zoning ordinances. St. Stephen's reserves 35 of its 40 beds for residents who agree to participate in programs like those proposed for the Love Power shelter. Council member Campbell does not dispute that these programs would also meet the definition of supportive housing, but notes that they have been in existence since before the year-old zoning code Dacquisto cited. So the same rules don't apply.

Supporters of the Love Power shelter speculate that the zoning decision is just a backhanded way for Campbell to kowtow to residents and businesses on the West Bank. Although the church received the blessing of the West Side Citizens Coalition and the Cedar-Riverside Business Association, there continues to be strong opposition to the shelter. The business association endorsed the project by a narrow 8-6 vote, with every business in the immediate Seven Corners area, where the shelter would be located, voting against it.

"I'm all for it, just not in my backyard," says Steve Mularky, a member of the business association and a cook at Sgt. Preston's restaurant. "I've put a lot of money and time into running a restaurant here and it hurts to have those things come into your neighborhood." Mularky and other business owners note that construction is also beginning on a homeless shelter that will hold more than 100 families at the corner of Portland Avenue and Third Street South, not far from the Seven Corners area. "How many do we need in our neighborhood?" Mularky asks rhetorically. Area businesses are now in the process of circulating an anti-shelter petition that they intend to present to the city council.

Project backers, including Gallini and Streitz, all but accuse Campbell and Dacquisto of conspiring to thwart the project in deference to neighborhood opposition. They say that when they met with Campbell about the shelter prior to the zoning administrator's decision, she raised the concern that it was actually supportive housing. "The zoning administrator basically parroted, if you will, the position taken by the council member and her aide," says Streitz.

Adds Beckmen, of the Corporation for Supportive Housing: "Lots of social service programs come up against either neighborhood opposition or political opposition, but I've never seen such an obvious misclassification of a homeless shelter in order to deny it to go forward."

Both Campbell and Dacquisto maintain that they never discussed the zoning issue. "I had looked at the zoning code myself and said, 'Boy, that's supportive housing, that doesn't belong here,' but I had never talked to [Dacquisto]," says Campbell.

Regardless of who ultimately made the decision to deny Love Power Church a permit, the need for beds for homeless men will only rise as the temperature drops. On a Monday night at St. Stephen's Shelter, 49 men gather to vie for just 16 available beds. Cathy ten Broeke, program director at the shelter, pulls bingo balls from a red hat, a lodging lottery that repeats itself nightly. The numbers are matched with names, determining which lucky men will have a place to sleep that night. The losers will have to search for shelter elsewhere. As of now, the Love Power Church is not an option.

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