The Ramsey County Board expressed strong support Tuesday for a plan to turn Bethesda Hospital into a homeless shelter, but delayed approval of the lease for a week to better address neighbors’ security concerns.
Commissioners spoke about the urgent need for more shelter space with winter fast approaching. Nearly 400 people recently have been sleeping outside in St. Paul, which is said to be a record.
The hospital building, just north of the State Capitol in the Frogtown neighborhood, 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.
Neighbors say that the shelter could bring with it increasing crime and drug activity, and that a private park on the hospital grounds could be overrun by the homeless. Commissioners vowed Tuesday to address those security concerns, but pushed back on opposition to the shelter. No public comment was taken at the meeting, which was held virtually.
“I want us to understand security and safety is also about moving our most vulnerable people inside,” said Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo. “There is this huge fear we are sending hardened criminals into the neighborhood and that is not the case. …
“These are people who are in a crisis. That crisis might look like an active addiction. It might look like mental health. It might look like they’ve had a time where they have been turned away from other shelters.”
Fairview Health announced last week that it will close Bethesda and eliminate 900 jobs across its network of hospitals and clinics to stem financial losses.
County officials are negotiating with Fairview to lease the building for homeless residents starting Dec. 1 and extending through May 31, 2022. The 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.
“No matter where an opportunity presented itself, a community was going to be upset,” said Commissioner Nicole Joy Frethem, who represents the northern suburbs. “This is the opposition we face at every stage of addressing housing issues, regardless of whether it’s shelter or affordable housing.”
She said that flurries are in the weekend forecast and that the county doesn’t have time to keep looking for other properties. Commissioner Jim McDonough, who represents St. Paul’s East Side, said he supports the plan to provide beds and shelter for 100 more people and that it’s about basic respect for all people.
“These individuals deserve just as much dignity as each and every one of us in our community, no matter where we are at and how well we are doing at that moment in time,” McDonough said.