Almost all of the couches and comfy chairs are occupied inside the basement of First Lutheran Church on St. Paul’s East Side. Most of the occupants are asleep. But Neal, who’d “rather not” give his last name, is wide-awake.
The 61-year-old frequents the Listening House homeless center about three times a week. Neal has lived on the streets for about eight years. Most nights he crashes at downtown shelters like Catholic Charities Higher Ground or the Dorothy Day Center. Neal visits Listening House for a sense of connection and because it feels like, well, home.
“They treat you like a real human being," he says. "You can go here for something to eat. For relaxation. For clean socks and a nice clean pair of pants and a shirt. For somebody to talk to. You can use the phone to call any family you might have.”
Listening House’s new location is situated in the Swede Hollow neighborhood, not far from where Metropolitan State University gazes down upon Interstate 94. It's a panorama of old homes on the rebound and a smattering of businesses like Burger King and a coffee shop. And it's where some residents have been feeling low since the homeless center arrived in early June.
Rene and Kim Lerma live across the street from the church on Maria Avenue in a majestic Victorian house they renovated. According to the couple, the nonprofit’s arrival has been accompanied by public urination, defecation, and drunkenness. They’ve witnessed two men brawling on the church’s lawn. The Lermas say neighbors have found hypodermic needles by their house.
In another incident, a mom walked as her boys rode their bikes on the sidewalk. A man she presumed was a Listening House guest yelled at them at the top of his lungs, for no apparent reason. She admits the episode scared her.
“We’ve been painted as the NIMBY neighbors who don’t want this place in our community,” says the mom, who asked to remain anonymous because she felt “nervous” about having her name made public. “We’ve been painted as uncompassionate, that we don’t care about homeless people. That’s simply not true. We do care, yet as a mom I’m just supposed to just deal with incidents like the one that just happened? What it’s done is brought a new set of worries for us.”
Cheryl Peterson, Listening House’s new executive director, feels empathy for residents. She asks that it be reciprocated.
“Those are the kind of things that I absolutely want to know about,” she says. “We want to be good neighbors and hear about things that aren't working. I can only address problems that I know about. We want to resolve issues in a compassionate, open way. I want to know that they too are willing to find a way this can work. I feel as if both sides can do a better job at that.”
A failure to communicate appears to have helped bring the issue to where it now stands. Neighbors have filed an appeal with the city. They're asking the center be closed, arguing that Listening House is in violation of its zoning laws in that its operation is detrimental “to the residential character of the neighborhood.” The city has delayed a decision. A mediator has been assigned.
The answers might very well come from Neal, the Listening House guest.
“When you’re serving a couple hundred people, you’re going to have a few who don’t appreciate it so much,” he says. “Those of us who do appreciate it, we try to self-weed. If we see something that’s in the negative, we speak on it. If we see somebody that’s doing damage to our image, we let them know. And if that doesn’t work, we let staff know.
“On the whole, most of the people who comes here have a level of respect for where we are in the neighborhood. Give us a chance. We sweep up around the church and up the block. We’re trying to impress upon the neighborhood that if you give us a chance, more good comes out of this place than negative, and it shines for everybody.”