Dayton’s Bluff homeless shelter controversy far from over

file image • In April, First Lutheran Church, which houses Listening House homeless day shelter, sued the City of St. Paul in federal court over conditions imposed by the city on how the shelter can operate out of the church. The conditions followed months of complaints from First Lutheran neighbors about people who use the shelter defecating, urinating, and trespassing in the neighborhood, among other issues.

Federal judge eases restrictions on church that houses it


The ongoing disupute over a Dayton’s Bluff homeless shelter housed out of a church, which neighbors say is an ongoing nuisance, is moving through federal court.

The judge presiding over the lawsuit First Lutheran Church brought against the City of St. Paul lifted two of the 14 conditions the city placed on the church at the behest of neighbors on how the Listening House homeless day shelter can operate out of church facilities. 

The preliminary injunction, issued July 2, is temporary while the case continues.

First Lutheran Church has a partnership with Listening House, a homeless day shelter that provides a variety of programming, to let the shelter operate out of the church.

The church filed a lawsuit against St. Paul in April in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, which followed a suit Listening House filed against the city in Ramsey County District Court that same month.

Both lawsuits followed a year of the city, neighbors, church and shelter struggling to find a compromise to have the shelter operate while appeasing those who live nearby it.


A burden

First Lutheran is suing the city over what it claims are violations of its rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as rights protected by the Minnesota state constitution and U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

The church asked for a preliminary injunction to remove the 14 operating conditions imposed on it by the city while the case goes through the court system, arguing the conditions will create “irreparable harm,” according to court documents. St. Paul put the conditions in place in response to neighbors’ complaints about people who use the shelter defecating, urinating, and trespassing in the neighborhood, among other issues. 

U.S District Judge John Tunheim determined that two conditions should be lifted at the moment — one that limited the number of people served by the shelter to 20 per day and another requiring a sign that restricts after-hours usage of the property aiming “to aid in the enforcement of trespassing violation by Listening House guests or other persons when Listening House is closed.”

Conditions that remain in place include Listening House staff working two hours before and after posted hours — 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — to ensure shelter users leave the property and to provide bus fare for them, sharing serious incidents involving users on a shared Google site and that Listening House must review camera footage and a neighborhood log of incidents each day to identify issues. 

Tunheim wrote in his decision that the sign requirement was creating a substantial burden because it “put substantial pressure on First Lutheran to change both its use of its property and the message it sends to the community in ways that are antithetical to First Lutheran’s purpose, mission, and practice.”

Tunheim explained that it appeared the 20-person limit “undermines their mission to provide services to [as] many people as they can.” 

The judge also said it undermines the shelter’s ability to effectively recruit volunteers because “volunteers may feel that their time could be better used at facilities that serve more people” and that the 20-person limit would “undermine First Lutheran’s message to be welcoming and force the church to change its message and relationship with Listening House.

While the injunction is only temporary, as the legal case is ongoing, Tunheim explained that his decisions are based on the likelihood of First Lutheran being successful in its case.

“The Court finds that First Lutheran has shown that it is likely to prevail on the merits of its [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act] substantial-burden claim with respect to the sign-posting requirement and the twenty-person limit and that it is likely to prevail on its free-speech claim with respect to the sign-posting requirement.”


Struggle for 

a compromise

Listening House began operating out of First Lutheran Church in June of 2017. The homeless day shelter moved after a space it rented in downtown St. Paul was torn down. 

The church offered space to the shelter because it connected with its mission and beliefs. 

A letter to the city from First Lutheran Church Pastor Chris Olson Bingea said the church, since its founding in 1854, has always been a “friend of the homeless.”

Soon after the shelter began operating, neighbors reported issues of people defecating and urinating on private property, being loud and intoxicated, trespassing and other issues.

After a series of complaints, attempts at mediation, multiple meetings, public hearings, and appeals by both neighbors and the church and shelter, the city made its final decision on the matter at a December 2017 city council meeting, following the Planning Commission’s recommendations that the shelter remain, against neighbors’ wishes and appeals, but operate under the 14 conditions. 


– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto

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