Listening House sues St. Paul over guest restrictions


file graphic • Listening House, a homeless day shelter that operates out of First Lutheran Church at 463 Maria Ave., is suing the City of St. Paul over restrictions put on it by the St. Paul City Council that limit the number of guests it can serve, among other things.

As Listening House, a homeless day shelter in Dayton’s Bluff, neighbors and the city struggle to find a balance so all can coexist, the organization filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Paul in Ramsey County District Court on April 2. 

The suit alleges that restrictions placed on the use of Listening House, which operates out of First Lutheran Church at 463 Maria Ave. are “arbitrary and capricious, unreasonable, irrational, unsupported by the record.” It also alleges that the city appeal process that took place during the summer of 2017 was “untimely and contrary to law.”

The restrictions limit the number of people the shelter can serve daily, among other things.

The St. Paul City Council voted to impose the restrictions on Listening House in February, following months of neighbor complaints about the shelter and various machinations at city commission meetings.

The suit is not asking for monetary compensation but asks for the city’s restrictions to be removed and for the original determinations of use to be returned, allowing the shelter to serve the close to 120 people that had come through on a daily basis.

 

Early approval

Listening House originally was located in downtown St. Paul at Mary Hall. According to the suit, Listening House began looking for a new location after finding out the center would be uprooted due to the expansion of the new Dorothy Day Place. Later that year, First Lutheran Church reached out to Listening House to offer the use of its basement. 

In a letter to the city from First Lutheran Church, Pastor Chris Olson Bingea says the church, since its founding in 1854, has always been a “friend of the homeless,” explaining why it partnered with Listening House and continues to support it being at the church. 

According to both the suit and city documents, during the fall of 2016, First Lutheran Church and Listening House contacted the state, county and city to find out if there were any approvals needed to have Listening House move and operate out of First Lutheran’s basement. 

The city’s zoning administrator told them that the planned operations were not specifically spelled out in city code and that Listening House and and First Lutheran would need to apply for a “determination of similar use.”

On March 20, 2017, the zoning administration approved Listening House to operate out of First Lutheran’s basement. According to the suit, Listening House was told by city staff that notice to the neighborhood would go through the city’s early notification system. 

In May of 2017, after Listening House received approval from the city council and finished about $250,000 worth of construction on its new space, neighbors near First Lutheran Church said they had not received notice of the relocation of Listening House. The suit says that First Lutheran and Listening House held a meeting with neighbors to address concerns before Listening House opened. 

The center opened in June and about a month later the city sent a letter to Listening House, local organizations and city staff, to say it would accept appeals of the March 20 determination of use after receiving multiple complaints from neighbors near Listening House. 

 

Later complaints

The suit says this was “irregular and unlawful” because according to city ordinances, the appeal should have been brought within 10 days of the initial approval and should not have been heard by the Planning Commission.

Various neighbors came forward with complaints about guests from Listening House urinating and defecating on their properties, people sleeping on their property, public intoxication and other issues. 

According to the suit and city documents, after a public hearing in August, the Zoning Committee delayed its decision on the residents’ appeal until Sept. 28, to allow neighbors and Listening House to try to agree on conditions of use, but no conditions could be agreed on. 

During its Sept. 28 meeting, the Zoning Committee voted to send the appeal to the Planning Commission with a recommendation to grant the appeal, which would overturn the original determination of use, no longer allowing Listening House to operate out of First Lutheran’s basement.

After a tie vote at its Oct. 6 meeting, the Planning Commission returned to the issue Oct. 20, and instead of granting the appeal, presented a set of conditions to consider, which included limiting Listening House to serving 20 guests per day. 

In addition, the conditions also limited the hours of operation, required staff to be on site two hours before and after operating hours, prohibited outdoor patios and required Listening House to report incidents with its guests on a Google site for neighbors to be informed.  

Both Listening House and neighbors appealed the planning Commission’s Oct. 20 decision, with Listening House calling the conditions “vague, overbroad and discriminatory.”

In their appeal, neighbors Rene and Kim Lerma said, “The ‘annoyances’ that the Planning Commission failed to adequately consider ... have become a responsibility for the neighbors of Dayton’s Bluff to absorb, endure, document, intervene and problem solve in a manner that is entirely unrealistic for people living, working and raising families on nearby blocks.”

They added, “Listening House’s presence is not ‘low profile,’” as required by the Planning Commission’s conditions laid out on Oct. 20.

However, the city council eventually approved the conditions with a final action on Feb. 27. The only change was holding off on limiting the number of guests served until April 2, allowing Listening House to serve more guests during the winter. 

“The final resolution, although ostensibly allowing Listening House to stay at the First Lutheran location, imposes such draconian conditions and limitation on Listening House that, if enforced, would effectively cause Listening House to close,” the suit says.

The complaint argues that the 20-guest limit “dramatically curtails” services and it would be hard to fund it, as donors would concerned about the center’s effectiveness. 


 

– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto

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