Minneapolis will expand homeless shelters beyond the churches downtown

"Everyone has the right to ask for help."

"Everyone has the right to ask for help."

There’s an age-old rule in Minneapolis that confines homeless shelters to downtown or to religious institutions. The city’s overnight shelters have become overcrowded as a result, with churches cramming as many people as they can into dingy basements and gymnasiums that aren’t really meant for human habitation.

That law was established decades ago when churches were the first to offer emergency housing, says Steven Horsfield, executive director of Simpson Housing. Back then, churchgoers just wanted to get people off the streets and into beds where they wouldn’t freeze overnight. The city trusted religious institutions to do it with order and dignity. 

Yet over time as religious diversity expanded, the restriction is making less sense.

“We want to be able to serve anyone who’s coming to us looking for service,” Horsfield says. “If you’re Muslim and the shelter is the Baptist church, there’s this perception of, ‘Oh well I’m going to have to sing for my supper.’ That just doesn’t strike me as fair.”

After years of back-and-forth on the issue, the City Council is poised to finalize a new ordinance that would expand nonprofit homeless shelters beyond downtown. At this stage, members are ironing out the particulars of different types of shelters — emergency or long-term — and where they can be located.

Some neighborhood associations are watching nervously, concerned that too many homeless may start concentrating in parts of the city with cheaper homes for rent.

Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, says she and others from Phillips and Stevens Square feel vulnerable about their neighborhoods; they could be especially attractive for social services to build large shelters. Whittier always had three shelters, all based in churches, Biehn points out, and her goal is to have them spread more evenly throughout the city.

“Although the shelters can draw people who need assistance, there’s also a predatory population that is drawn,” she says. “There’s been drug dealing. There’s been people who can’t get into the shelter who end up loitering in the area, sleeping in their cars. There’s loitering and panhandling and alcohol problems that kind of cluster around the Franklin-Nicollet area.”

The homeless deserve assistance, Biehn says, but she believes Whittier is already oversaturated with shelters, halfway houses, and drug treatment programs.

Jaymir Phillips-Hare, a transient 18-year-old who spends his nights riding the trains or curled up near Target Field, says all he wants is a safe place to rest so he can finish school and get his diploma.

He’s agnostic on church shelters. Even if social workers don’t actively proselytize, they’re usually so overcrowded that he can’t relax anyway.

“Back when I was a little kid and I was still living with my mom, we were in and out of shelters,” Phillips-Hare says. “Back then she was abusive and stuff. There were some sketchy people in the shelters that touched me. I’m not really mentally ready to stay in shelters.”

Instead, he uses drop-in centers like YouthLink downtown, where he can shower, drink coffee, and do homework until close.

Once the City Council officially votes, homelessness agencies can build more purposeful and spacious housing for the needy, Horsfield says.

“We’ll have better resources for housing staff, more dignified living situations than having 40 men in a church gymnasium,” he says. “It would allow people to get better rest and be able to think more carefully about their future, help our guests get out of that crisis mode.”