Conflicting accounts create tension around canceled Luther Seminary shelter

Community members say they oppose lack of transparency and non-adherence to zoning ordinances, not the homeless per se

By Sommer Wagen

         May 22, 2024 -The Luther Seminary in St. Anthony Park abruptly canceled plans to lease its vacant Stub Hall dormitory as an emergency shelter to Ramsey County in the face of community opposition, the exact nature of which remains a point of contention between community members and those leading the shelter effort.

         The plan to lease the vacant Stub Hall dormitory as a Safe Space Shelter through the nonprofit Model Cities  organization was to be discussed at a town hall meeting on May 21, which was also canceled.

         Heidi Droegemueller, vice president for seminary relations at Luther, said in a statement Monday the shelter plan was “not a constructive path for the seminary or the neighborhood at this time.”

A lost opportunity?

         Ramsey County Board District 3 Commissioner Trista Martinson said in a statement Monday that she has been searching for a more “dignified and suitable space” to fulfill emergency housing needs for over five years, and she thought they’d found a perfect answer in the Luther property.

         “The opportunity of Stub Hall was unique in the county,” she said, referring to its dormitory-style individual rooms and bathrooms. “I am very afraid that there may not be another available, suitable, affordable building anywhere else in the county.”

         This turn of events comes after the Legislature did not allocate additional direct funding for homelessness causes in this year’s session. Commissioner Martinson described herself as “devastated and disappointed,” and she took some community members to task over their tactics.

         “The campaign of fear mongering and innuendo waged against unsheltered people over the last few weeks has been the most disheartening thing that I have ever witnessed as an elected official in Ramsey County,” she said.

         According to Martinson, this attitude motivated the seminary’s hasty decision to drop the plan.

Opposition bristles at Commissioner’s portrayal

         In a message to the St. Anthony Park listserv, community member Jon Schumacher called Commissioner Martinson’s statement “an unwarranted defamation and a blatant attempt to cover up the lack of process, professionalism and community partnership our county is supposed to be about.”    

         Community members have further attested to the plan being a surprise announcement made with no community input.

         Eric Galatz, a land use attorney and St. Anthony Park resident, said he personally found out about the plan in a May 8 Pioneer Press article. He said there was “no notice of planning … just an announcement.”

         Galatz accused Ramsey County and Model Cities of not adhering to the City of St. Paul’s zoning ordinances for “overnight shelters,” which can’t legally be located in residential neighborhoods.

         One such ordinance states that overnight shelters in “Accessory Use” to religious institutions may not use more than 25 beds. The Safe Space Shelter planned to use 64.

         The plan entailed leasing the building to the county for three years starting this summer, replacing the current Safe Space Shelter at the Government Center East building in downtown St. Paul, set to close at the end of the year.

Previous shelter go-round questioned

         The seminary previously leased Stub Hall from December 2020 to June 2022 as an emergency shelter for women and couples at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Community members have attested that all was not right at the shelter.

         According to Schumacher, the women and children at the previous shelter were not safe or well-cared for and the seminary and Ramsey County “ignored the experiences shared by good people who care deeply about the unhoused.”

         Community member Cindy Ahlgren recounted in a message to the SAP listserv numerous negative experiences involving residents of the previous Stub shelter such as increased litter that included used syringes.    In another instance, Ahlgren said she and her husband had to help an injured Stub resident who approached them at their home and refused to return to the shelter.

         “My heart went out to her,” Ahlgren said. “She was certainly no threat to us, but I considered that the kind of men who could have put her in that condition were a new threat in our neighborhood.”

         Both Galatz and Ahlgren said that their opposition is not rooted in “NIMBY-ism” or callousness towards those experiencing homelessness.     “It’s not about who’s being hosted,” said Galatz, who has experience working with homeless services such as The Listening House of St. Paul. “People have an expectation to know what is going on.”

         Martinson did not respond to emails or phone calls for response to Galatz’s comments.

         Sommer Wagen majors in journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and is an intern for the Bugle.

3 Responses

  1. Eric Galatz

    Ann – really disappointing that you direct your disappointment at the community rather than the County and City. The “tough problem” the neighborhood faced is the failure of the county and city to follow city ordinances and consult with the community about the County’s approach to the “tough problem” the County has undertaken to solve. The County, and the Foundation, have no idea how the neighborhood would approach the “tough problem” they undertook to solve without consulting us.

  2. Eric Galatz

    5 years is a long time to be looking without consulting the zoning ordinances or the community. From statements by the commissioner and others it appears they were relying on a federal statute that allows religious institutions to challenge the application of City ordinances that impose an unacceptable burden on religious exercise. Under the same First Amendment clause that prohibits a governmental entity from being a religious institution.

  3. Ann Nordby

    It is a shame that SAP residents did not approach this tough problem with the same energy and skills they have applied to other tough problems, as they did when they created a community garden and managed it for 30 years. Or founding the SAP Foundation to support community projects. Or raising enough money to rehab a beautiful library. Or keeping their beautiful Fourth of July celebration going. Or supporting a great Sr Citizen services group. Or raising jillions for the local elementary school through plant sales and silent auctions. There are many more examples of smart, caring people solving tough local problems that they care about.
    What happened to “All are welcome here”? Many SAP residents are proclaiming that belief in their front yards, but “all” doesn’t seem to mean people who need shelter, and “here” doesn’t seem to mean St Anthony Park.

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