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ST. CLOUD — Officials here are grappling with how to handle homelessness after residents and business owners successfully rallied against the expansion of a shelter they say is mismanaged.

The Lincoln Center shelter on the city's east side opened about 18 months ago and is run by the nonprofit Homeless Helping Homeless under the direction of St. Cloud resident Harry Fleegel.

This spring, Fleegel requested the city's zoning board increase the center's capacity from 19 to 25 overnight residents and approve a remodeling project that would add individual lockable sleeping modules, a more secure entrance and private meeting rooms for residents to receive social services.

The zoning board approved the request contingent on a new 2-1 resident-to-staff ratio meant to help alleviate concerns from neighboring residents and business owners that include increased crime and trespassing since the center opened. The approval was also contingent on the shelter completing overdue improvements required by land development code such as the installation of a sprinkler system.

Fleegel appealed the zoning board's decision to the City Council — and instead asked for a less stringent 6-1 ratio — but withdrew his appeal after council members made it clear last month they planned to overturn the zoning board's decision and deny the expansion request.

But the "horror stories" from neighbors have continued, Council Member George Hontos said at Monday's City Council meeting.

"Just because the applicant has withdrawn their appeal request doesn't mean that the problems still don't exist," Hontos said. "We have to do something. We need to hear from the administration that, in fact, things are going to change. The public needs to hear it."

The Lincoln Center is considered a no- or low-barrier shelter, meaning it doesn't turn away people who are intoxicated, disruptive due to mental health issues or who have pets.

While the city has about a dozen other overnight shelters, the Lincoln Center has become a hotbed for complaints because it lacks rules, Council Member Mike Conway said. Since the shelter has opened, residents have complained of increased drug paraphernalia in bathrooms at neighboring businesses, confrontations between shelter residents and customers of area businesses, and shelter residents walking into neighborhoods at night.

"I understand they deal with the population that's the hardest to serve but that's not an excuse for inappropriate behavior, for criminal activity and for the destruction of property," said Jeff Goerger, council president.

St. Cloud Development Director Matt Glaesman said the city issued the shelter a $750 citation last month due to the lack of a fire suppression system. Since then, the center has been operating under the original 2021 conditional use permit, which only allows nine overnight guests. During the winter and pandemic, the city's fire marshal temporarily allowed 19 overnight residents if the shelter maintained a 24-hour fire watch.

Glaesman said Fleegel has obtained the funding and permits required for the sprinkler system, which is expected to be installed in early August. Then the shelter can expand capacity to 25 residents as long as it maintains the required staffing ratio.

Hontos pressed St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis and city officials about how the city can better handle homelessness. "Do we ... pass it off to the counties or do we get our hands dirty and address the issue?" Hontos asked.

Kleis said social services are a function of county government. The role of a city, Kleis said, is primarily public safety and infrastructure.

"I know there are cities that take over that function — Duluth, Minneapolis, Rochester — [but] if you go into that role that I believe is a county function, then you are taking resources away from your core function of public safety," he said. "That doesn't mean that I or anyone on this council doesn't have compassion for folks that are experiencing homelessness."

Goerger suggested the city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority look into how the city can better serve homeless people. Meanwhile, he hopes recent city enforcement regarding the center's capacity and building improvements will ease problems for the center's neighbors.

"I'm confident that what the [zoning board] put in place is going to help with the physical structure of that building," he said. "We're all hopeful, I think, maybe it will help somewhat with ... the problems in the neighborhood."