Groups Study Possibility of Family Shelter in Bandana Square
Thursday, January 9, 2020 7:35 AM

The Minnesota Cameroon Community Center is tucked between the hotel and Atrium office building in Bandana Square.

Interfaith Action and Ramsey County are exploring the feasibility of opening a homeless shelter and day center for families inside the Minnesota Cameroon Community Center space in Bandana Square in Energy Park.

“There are no solid plans, but it’s an exciting opportunity with lots of possibilities,” Sara Liegl, director of Interfaith Action’s Project Home, told District 10’s Land Use Committee on Jan. 6. The groups are working out feasibility, renovation and code requirements, construction costs, operational funding, staffing, and logistical needs, Liegl said. Late summer is the earliest she envisions a shelter could open.

County lacks permanent family shelter
Ramsey County currently does not have a permanent shelter for homeless families. Instead, Catholic Charities manages the county’s Family Service Center in Maplewood, which has 65 beds for families in crisis. Project Home provides 40 beds a night in a rotating group of faith communities and schools. Project Home also operates a day center for families at First Baptist Church downtown.

Families, who typically sleep on floor mats with cardboard partitions between them, must move every 30 days, says Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo.

Lillian Anderson, who is the Cameroon Community’s liaison for the shelter project, told the committee and about 30 neighbors who attended: “When I visited the shelter, what I saw touched my soul. It left me in tears. We want to do everything we can to help.”

Space is former medical clinic
The Cameroon Community owns about 57,000 square feet of space in the northwest corner of Bandana Square. The center is tucked between the Best Western Hotel and the Atrium office building – across the parking ramp from the Kendrick and MacLaren Hills residential communities.

The space is a former medical clinic. It still has more than 70 exam rooms with sinks, plus public bathrooms and other public space. The belief is that the former exam rooms could be converted into flexible, dormitory-style rooms that could provide private space for 40-60 families of different sizes, and perhaps older women, Liegl says. Other space could be used for meals, showers, storage, laundry, and case management services.

“When we found out about the plight of the homeless families, the school children, it was heartbreaking,” said Christian Akale, a board member of the Minnesota Cameroon Community. “We hope the building will be part of the solution.”

Invisible problem
Families who are homeless are not as visible as single adults who lack shelter, Liegl says. Families typically do not sleep in tent encampments, stand on street corners, or have large programs to serve them, she says.

But the challenge is mind-boggling, she told the committee. There are no immediate shelter beds for families in Ramsey County; instead, families go on a waiting list. In 2019, there were 35-90 families on the list at any one time, she says, and the list never got smaller than 120 parents and children. County residents receive priority.

“Most of the families have lived in Saint Paul most of their lives,” she says. “The kids go to local schools.” Families often try to double up for as long as they can with relatives or friends – sleeping in spare bedrooms, closets, unheated porches, or garages until they wear out their welcome. Families typically require shelter for three to four months, she says, before they find stable housing.

If pieces fall in place, Liegl says, the Bandana Square site would be Project Home’s main family shelter; the network of “mobile” faith community shelters would remain to meet overflow needs.

The Cameroon Community property is zoned B3. At the very least, a homeless shelter likely would require a conditional use permit and perhaps other variances. Depending on how the city classifies the shelter, the site could require rezoning to make it happen.

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Originally published Jan. 9, 2020

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