“It didn’t have to be this way”

What the controversy around the canceled Luther Seminary shelter proposal says about how the issue of homelessness is handled in St. Paul and beyond.

By Sommer Wagen

News analysis

The overnight shelter that was planned for Luther Seminary’s vacant Stub Hall would’ve been illegal to begin with, according to land use attorney and St. Anthony Park resident Eric Galatz.

         Galatz led the charge in the opposition from SAP residents that resulted in the Seminary deciding it wasn’t equipped to deal with challenges to the plan and recently pulling out of its planned lease with Ramsey County and the nonprofit organization Model Cities.

         As soon as he saw the May 8 “Pioneer Press” article announcing the shelter as essentially a done deal, Galatz said, “I knew that this kind of facility is only allowed in downtown business districts.”

         Galatz then called the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office which, he told the St. Anthony Park Listserv, was not even aware of the overnight shelter plans until he asked about it on Friday, May 10.

         “Someone involved in the project … did contact the City Planning Department about whether they needed any permits for the overnight shelter at Stub Hall,” Galatz explained. “The City planner (I assume not THE City Planner) apparently told the project representative no permits were required.”

         Once unleashed, the intensity of the community opposition to the shelter took many aback, including Ramsey County District 3 Commissioner Trista Martinson.   

         “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 in a statement on Monday, May 20. “All across our city, I see brightly colored signs declaring that ‘ALL ARE WELCOME HERE.’ Now I wonder how much we really mean it.”

Is it bias?

         Discomfort with unhoused people is not unexpected, nor unusual. According to the National Homelessness Law Center, at least 187 cities and 48 states have enacted laws over the past three decades to criminalize camping, sleeping in public places and panhandling.    

         Architecture and design often deliberately discourages such activities. For example, segmented and standing benches can be seen at bus and train stations throughout the Twin Cities as measures to deter unhoused people from sleeping there.

         In its worst form, bias has led to the actual killing of unhoused people. The National Coalition for the Homeless documented 97 reported acts of violence towards people experiencing homelessness from 2020 to 2022; almost half of those attacks were fatal.

         The report asserts that violence against the unhoused is the result of the dehumanization of the homeless and poor people in general going back to the 1980s.

         “Homelessness is not a moral failure of a person, it is a moral failure of society,” said NCH executive director Donald H. Whitehead Jr. in the Coalition’s 2024 Hate Crimes Report. “It is immoral to choose displacement and eviction over safety and equality.”

         Galatz maintains that using his knowledge of zoning laws to argue against the shelter does not equate to anti-homeless sentiment.

         “This isn’t NIMBY-ism,” he said. “The City ordinance says this shouldn’t be in anyone’s backyard.”

Recent experience plays a role

         There is another dimension to community opposition involving the people served at the shelter. One community member, Cynthia Ahlgren, wrote to the Listserv about a resident of the previous emergency shelter at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic who had approached her husband asking for help. 

         Ahlgren said the resident had refused to return to the shelter, raising questions about how well residents were being treated by shelter staff and beyond.

         “I firmly believe this placement of unscreened homeless men is inappropriate in any residential backyard,” she wrote. “This facility does not belong in a residential area anywhere.”

         Ahlgren added that she was speaking as someone who is clear-eyed about mental illness and addiction.

“I have a family member who suffers from both,” she wrote. “The problems they face are acute and varied and not limited to the mere fact that they do not have a roof over their heads.”

         The miscommunication that created the controversy surrounding the overnight shelter did much more than perturb St. Anthony Park residents.

         “Widespread homelessness is manufactured by failed policies at every level of government,” the NCH said in their report.

         According to Commissioner Martinson, no additional direct funding was allocated to homelessness causes from this year’s legislative session.

Last year, conversely, the state of Minnesota dedicated the most funding ever to homelessness programs, according to Matt Traynor, acting executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

         There appears to be no clear answer on whether homelessness is being properly addressed. 

         It is clear, however, that the statewide figure remains high. According to Wilder Research, homelessness in the state of Minnesota remains at the second-highest level out of the past 30 year.

A religious exemption, or a religious obligation?

         Once Luther Seminary started to receive feedback from the surrounding community, it appeared the scope of the issue was beyond what it could manage.

         “The complexity of managing the proposed lease and supporting a vulnerable population exceeded our current capacity in terms of staffing and resources,” said Rachel Farris, Director of Public Relations for Luther Seminary in an email statement.

         Farris explained the Seminary’s understanding from the City of St. Paul and Ramsey County that the shelter was allowable “based on federal law pertaining to land owned by religious organizations.”

         That law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), prohibits imposing a “substantial burden on religious practice” via the law.

         However, Galatz contended the Luther Seminary’s capacity as a landlord in the shelter deal without any hand in shelter operations from clergy, congregation or staff exempts Luther from RLUIPA protection.

         “The County decided to break the law,” he alleged. “Changing an ordinance (so RLUIPA could apply to Luther) should be a public process.”

         With the Seminary unable by law to serve the unhoused population and an elected official claiming to be out of options, local religious leaders have since set their sights on finding solutions through community. 

         “It did not have to be this way,” said co-Pastors of the St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church Jill Rode and Daniel Tallon Ruen, referring to the poor communication between Ramsey County, the neighborhood and Luther Seminary.

         Co-Pastors Rode and Ruen scheduled a community meeting on June 27 at the St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church to address the needs of the unhoused “cooperatively.”

         “We would like nothing more than to re-start conversations with the seminary, the county, and the wider community about how to work together to provide support and care for one another and for people in need,” they said in their statement.

Sommer Wagen is a University of Minnesota journalism student and intern for the Bugle

Leave a Reply