After decades of leasing space, most recently in the basement of an East Side church, Listening House has moved again — but this time into a home of its own.
Thanks to $6 million received from the state, St. Paul and other donors, the daytime drop-in center for adults living in poverty has purchased and renovated the former Red's Savoy Pizza on the edge of downtown.
"We have been nearly as transient as the people we serve," said Molly Jalma, Listening House's executive director. "This gives us stability. This gives us a place to call home."
Officials this week showed off their new center, at 421 E. 7th St. — a clean and modern facility with showers, lockers, a post office and a commercial kitchen. They are hopeful that moving the program, which serves 125 people a day and 5,000 a year, to its own building in a mostly commercial area will bring a bit more tranquility to Listening House.
For years, Listening House has had an uneasy relationship with neighbors made anxious by a mostly homeless and poor clientele, many of whom deal with chemical dependency and mental health challenges.
Listening House was displaced in 2017 from the former Mary Hall at St. Joseph's Hospital by the Catholic Charities Higher Ground project, and moved to the basement of First Lutheran Church in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood. Almost immediately, homeowners near the church began to complain about trash, trespassing and drug and alcohol use by some of the center's guests.
The St. Paul City Council decreed that, starting in April 2018, Listening House could serve no more than 20 people a day. Officials with the center and the church said they wouldn't comply, and Listening House sued the city. In July 2018, a federal judge blocked the city from enforcing restrictions, saying they appeared to violate the church's First Amendment rights. The city and Listening House settled the suit a few months later, and the restrictions were mostly relaxed.
First Lutheran's leaders have been wonderful allies, Jalma said, but moving out of its basement is good for both the church and the center.
"Churches have to be churches first. They have weddings. They have services. They have choir practice," she said. "And that limits our hours, which is fine. But it doesn't let us respond to organic shifts in need. It also doesn't allow us to expand the space."
While the new center is slightly smaller than what it was at First Lutheran, Jalma said, work will begin in the next 45 days on an expansion in the lot next door. The project will double the center's footprint and add resting quarters, a laundry and an enclosed courtyard.
The project is expected to be completed next summer. And with that, officials said, they hope the years of tension are over.
Jennifer Hyvonen, a Listening House spokeswoman, said officials "realize that we're as vulnerable as our population to being displaced. So, we decided it's time for us to create our own building, a permanent place, that eliminates the ability to get displaced and disruption of services."
She added: "We're going to flip the narrative."