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North Minneapolis residents say homeless shelter planned without their input

DonEsther Morris and Cheryl Anderson of A Mother's Love say they canvassed the neighborhood to find out if anyone was consulted about the proposed shelter.

DonEsther Morris and Cheryl Anderson of A Mother's Love say they canvassed the neighborhood to find out if anyone was consulted about the proposed shelter.

Encampments in the parks, along the Midtown Greenway, and underneath bridges across Minneapolis have made the plight of the chronically homeless impossible to ignore. City, county, and state officials proposed using an emergency CARES Act grant to add three high-density shelters.

The American Indian Community Development Corporation will develop one in East Phillips. Catholic Charities will run another in Elliot Park. And the Salvation Army will operate a third at the now-defunct Gordon Center School in north Minneapolis.

One of them is drawing considerable ire from residents.

On Sunday, North Side school board representative KerryJo Felder met with a group of about 50 people in the Willard-Hay neigborhood who oppose the idea of building a women's shelter at Gordon Center. Neighbors criticized elected officials for not seeking their input before plotting a homeless shelter in a residential area – something that would never happen in a wealthy white neighborhood, Felder pointed out.

“You think they could just force something over by Lake Calhoun?” Felder asked. “So why do they think we are any less than they are, over here on the North Side? How many hurdles do they want to give our kids to jump over every day when they want to put it next door to [Willard] park, which is really the only place we have to take our kids for their birthdays?”

Felder says she’ll vote against the school board selling Gordon Center to the county, but the rest of the school board is mixed.

Residents also say the county’s plans would crush their dreams of transforming the former school into a youth center that would offer free mentorship and activities to area teenagers, many of whom cannot afford YMCA memberships and hang out aimlessly on Golden Valley Road, on the other side of the park.

“I never thought this would be a shelter. I always thought it would be something to build the community,” said Victor Martinez, who does homeless outreach as a pastor at Soy NG Church.

He lived in various shelters as a child growing up in a family of six, and says for the chronically homeless, finding housing is less of a problem than addiction, which can make holding down housing impossible. He says that’s why Willard-Hay needs a youth center at Gordon Center – something that will address the root causes of homelessness instead of merely treating its symptoms.

“Most [homeless] people that call me, they want money. They don't want a place to stay. They need to feed something,” Martinez says. “You know, and that's what worries me about these places… I see the need, but then you see the problem with drugs. When they close there, there are going to be people out here with drugs. There’ll be needles on the ground.”

Representatives of A Mother’s Love, a prolific group of North Side women who practice violence prevention in hot pink, urged residents to call city council member Jeremiah Ellison, county commissioner Irene Fernando, and school board members Kim Ellison and Kimberly Caprini for authentic public engagement before another shelter is placed in the neighborhood. There are currently three homeless shelters less than a mile away from Gordon Center.

“That building was built for kids and needs to be dedicated back to the young people of our community,” said DonEsther Morris, program director of A Mother’s Love.

“We’re asking them to come back to the community and talk to the community. We door-knocked every block from Queen to Upton, from Golden Valley Road to Plymouth. Not one neighbor said they were consulted, but they asked us for information and how to go about getting it.”

County commissioner Fernando did not respond for comment. In a statement about the proposal, she said North is "dramatically underserved when it comes to emergency shelter services," both compared to what the neighborhood needs and relative to other parts of town. 

Fernando adds that the Gordon Center is close to Northpoint Health & Wellness Center and a bus rapid transit line, and notes that the 22,000-square-foot building has been "closed to the public since 1990 and unused since 2005," though it costs Minneapolis Public Schools "tens of thousands of dollars each year to maintain." 

Says Fernando: "We have worked directly with those who are experiencing homelessness or have experienced homelessness on the North Side, and they have asked for a women’s shelter close to their community and support networks."

North Side residents’ Gordon Center website can be found here.