Homeless group and their future neighbors agree:

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February 12, 2002 // UPDATED 1:13 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

A ten-story, 400-person shelter will soon open at Portland and 3rd, making life better for homeless families -- and, neighbors say, not worse for them

The homeless families at People Serving People sleep in dingy rooms, drenched in the smell of stale cigarette smoke. The small children's library is also the adult library, an office and a meeting room. And the staff's break room is actually a bathroom.

But this spring, the staff and residents of Minnesota's largest family shelter will be moving on up -- from a five-story building to a ten-story one, and from near the 35W on-off ramps to a stone's throw from the river. By April, People Serving People will move into a newly renovated $6-million building at 251 Portland Ave.

"Where we're at now is such a dump. We want it to be like a home," said Annette Rodriguez, organizational resources manager for PSP. "We're in dire need of this."

An old Cadillac warehouse is now the Cadillac of shelters, named A Place of Hope. The renovated space will be able to hold enough families to fill 99 shelter rooms and ten transitional units (which will serve as longer-term affordable housing).

At the current location, PSP is situated on the edge of Downtown, penned between the highway and cars speeding to or from it. At its new location in Downtown East, PSP will be neighbored by retail stores, restaurants, offices and high-end condominiums, raising questions about what kind of impact up to 400 homeless people could have on the neighborhood.

Broad neighborhood support "Are there going to be people wandering all over the place?" asked Bob Torbenson, general manager for a nearby Sawatdee Thai Restaurant, 607 Washington Ave. S. "I don't know what's going to be coming in and out of (the shelter)."

Torbenson was quick to add that he supports helping homeless people. "Basically I'm just stressing concern for it," he said.

Torbenson's carefully worded worry is as extreme as can be found in the area; here, neighbors are not up in arms over poor people moving into their neighborhood.

Fellow restaurant general manager Robbe Nelson at the Old Spaghetti Factory, 233 Park Ave., speaks more broadly. "I really haven't heard concerns from anyone around here," Nelson said.

Carla Johnson, controller for nearby Architectural Antiques, 607 Washington Ave. S., goes further. "We're happy that there's a homeless shelter going in next door," Johnson said.

She added that she is not worried about any negative impacts that the shelter could have on business. "I just don't think it's going to be a problem," she said.

Attitudes like Johnson's are what PSP's Rodriguez has heard from most of the shelter's new neighbors. "A lot of times it's that not-in-my-neighborhood mentality. But we're not finding that," she said.

Nearby residents upbeat Councilmember Paul Zerby (2nd Ward) represents PSP's new location and supports A Place of Hope. While door-knocking in condominiums near the Stone Arch bridge, Zerby found that not only did some residents support having the shelter in the neighborhood, but they even wanted to volunteer there.

"It really felt good to hear that," Zerby said. "You had the most upscale of developments there that was being welcoming of the other end of the diversity continuum."

Dolores Cotton, who lives in the nearby River Gate Apartments, 115 2nd Ave. S., was once almost a victim of homelessness herself. When her husband died in 1992, Cotton said that she was given two months to evacuate her duplex, bury her husband and move into a new apartment. She is strongly in favor of the new homeless shelter.

"I know what being displaced is because I've gone through it myself," Cotton said. "I think any kind of shelter for the homeless is good."

And James Denaro, a bartender at the Minneapolis Eagle, 515 Washington Ave. S., a gay bar, quipped, "If there are a lot of gay homeless people, it could affect our business."

On a more serious note, Denaro said, "I think we need the homeless shelter. It's got to go somewhere."

Crime experts unconcerned People near a homeless shelter worry about crime. Tim Hammett is the crime-prevention specialist for the Downtown East, Elliot Park and Cedar Riverside neighborhoods. Hammett said he has not seen PSP have a negative effect on its current area.

"There haven't been a lot of calls or problems here," he said. "There is a perception in some neighborhoods that facilities of this type do impact crime. Sometimes, it's difficult to quantify what that impact really is."

Hammett cannot guarantee what people using PSP's new location will do around Washington and Portland. He said that regardless of whether a homeless shelter exists in the neighborhood, businesses and individuals must practice good personal safety. "If you don't give people the opportunity to commit the crime, they're not going to do it," he said. "I don't want to say that People Serving People is going to be a problem for folks, because I don't know that it will or that it won't."

Luther Krueger, another Downtown crime-prevention specialist, said that the shelter factor is almost irrelevant. "It doesn't matter what business you run, if it's run well, it's not going to be a problem," he said. "If it's not run well, it's going to be a detriment, and I don't care if it's a church."

Design calms fears Another reason there's little audible controversy surrounding the new shelter is because it doesn't look like a homeless shelter. The balcony on one side of PSP's current 10th Street building is enclosed in barbed wire. But the faade of a Place of Hope is painted in earth tones and resembles an urban village.

Rodriguez said that at one public meeting, she showed residents original drawings for the faade of the building. "They didn't like how it looked," she said. "So we changed it."

Architectural Antiques' Johnson is glad that her neighbor is no longer a warehouse. "It was a mess before, and it looks good now. They fixed it up. It's looking much nicer," she said.

Although the inside of the building is still very much under construction, already it's more attractive than the current building. The new kitchen is nearly four times the size of the old kitchen, with all the stainless steel of a restaurant kitchen. The sleeping rooms have built-in shelves, new bathrooms and great views of Downtown. The kids will also have their very own library.

At the current location, the nearest outdoor play area is a dingy no-man's-land between the highway ramps, owned (but not maintained) by the Minnesota Highway department. Kids share space with drug dealers. A Place Called Hope contains an enclosed tot lot and basketball court, and an indoor play area.

"We're trying to eradicate homelessness,but when people are homeless we want to make it the best situation," Rodriguez said.

Right now Shirley Jackson and her two children, Willie Tremell, 11, and Mary Angelique, 6, are homeless and staying at People Serving People. When told about the new shelter being built, Jackson said she would much rather find permanent housing than live in even the best shelter.

"This isn't where we want to be," Jackson said. "I want to be somewhere where I can cook for my babies."