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Lynne Snediker and Richard Fuerstenberg live in a condo across the street from Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, with a view of the hospital’s manicured park and sculptures.

They fear what will happen if Ramsey County moves forward with plans to convert the hospital into a homeless shelter.

“We are envisioning tents [with] extra trash, loitering and drugs,” Snediker said.

“This neighborhood has embraced the disadvantaged for a long time,” said Fuerstenberg, listing nearby halfway houses, shelters and subsidized housing.

The two were among more than 230 people who attended a virtual community meeting Thursday to discuss the plan. Concerns about rising crime, declining property values and harm to the surrounding neighborhood dominated the 90-minute discussion led by Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo and County Manager Ryan O’Connor.

On the heels of Fairview Health’s announcement this week that it will close Bethesda and eliminate 900 jobs across its network of hospitals and clinics to stem financial losses, county officials are weighing a plan to lease the building for homeless residents starting Dec. 1 and extending through May 31, 2022.

Ramsey County would pay $64,149 a month in rent and operating expenses for 110,000 square feet of space, according to a draft copy of the lease. Fairview would charge the county $1 per square foot annually for rent, with the remainder going toward operating costs.

The hospital building, just north of the State Capitol, would provide a 24-hour shelter and services for 100 homeless people. It would be a low-barrier shelter, meaning it would house people who have been unsuccessful in other shelter settings and are often battling addictions.

MatasCastillo and O’Connor gave a short presentation at Thursday’s meeting and then answered an onslaught of questions and comments that attendees typed into the chat feature on Zoom. Several fretted that the new shelter would hurt home values and bring more crime and disinvestment to the Frogtown neighborhood. More than 130 residents have signed an online petition opposing it.

Worries about crime

“You are talking about the hardest to house. You are talking about the people who have not been successful in permanent housing,” said Johnny Stoll, who lives near the Bethesda campus and works for nonprofits helping people battle drug and alcohol addiction.

He said he worried about increased crime, including drug dealing and prostitution. The shelter is desperately needed to help the homeless, he said, but not in a neighborhood setting.

“There will be break-ins. That is what addicts do. They break into cars and homes. They get what they need to stay high,” Stoll said.

Some others spoke in favor of the additional housing, especially for homeless youth, who often have jobs but don’t make enough to cover rent.

“We are strongly in favor of more shelter,” said John Slade, community organizer with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing. “There is a lot of fearmongering going on about what the shelter will do.”

More than half the homeless with whom Slade works have jobs, he said after the meeting.

MatasCastillo gently pushed back on comments that the facility would lower home values or make the neighborhood more dangerous. She said the shelter would bring people indoors who are currently living on neighborhood streets. Nearly 400 people are sleeping outside in St. Paul, said to be a record.

“Our role as government is to take care of the most vulnerable,” MatasCastillo said. “We need to take care of this population. It is our duty and it’s our moral obligation to take care of our most vulnerable. In this case it happens to be this homeless population left outside.”

Opportunity that fell ‘into our laps’

Some neighbors questioned the timing of the proposal. County officials announced the plan this week and said the County Board could vote on a lease as soon as Tuesday. The Frogtown Neighborhood Association will meet Monday to discuss the proposal with MatasCastillo, who said she would like to table Tuesday’s vote to address community concerns.

MatasCastillo said Fairview officials called county staffers in mid-September to discuss a possible lease. She said a Fairview official then called her Monday after they had announced their plans for Bethesda.

“We don’t want anyone to feel like this has been a big secret by any means,” she said. “This is literally an opportunity that has fallen in our laps.”

Resident Ronnie Santana said the neighborhood already struggles with crime and a mixed reputation. Someone used a crowbar to break into his apartment in June and take his laptop, backpack and passport, and he said a homeless shelter would only create more problems for the working-class community.

“The collateral issues are what is concerning everyone around here,” Santana said. “It’s going to bring an uptick in potential criminal activity and I do think real estate values will go down.”