New Listening House day shelter for homeless officially opens on St. Paul’s East 7th Street

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Maurice Coleman watches TV in the main room at Listening House in St. Paul on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023.  (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

From a new location near downtown St. Paul, the Listening House day shelter intends to serve as a space where people experiencing homelessness can safely eat, congregate, receive counseling and hunt for jobs.

“Listening House is and always will be a place for people to visit with no questions asked,” said Molly Jalma, executive director at Listening House, during a tour on Thursday.

The Listening House moved from their old temporary location at 296 West Seventh St. in November. The new site is at the former Red’s Savoy Pizza building. The building had been sitting empty after the popular pizza joint’s original owner passed away in 2017.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas, who helped secure $3 million of the total $6 million in remodeling funding as chair of the Capital Investment Committee, said the mission is significant.

“It’s important that unsheltered people have a place they can go where they can shower, eat, and meet counselors,” Pappas said.

Other sources of funding included the city of St. Paul, Listening House’s own board and private donations.

A day shelter

Guest relax in the main room at Listening House in St. Paul on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023.  (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Annie Byrne, the senior project manager at St. Paul’s Department of Planning and Economic Development, helped Listening House work through the development process, including a whole lot of paperwork.

“To go from all that paperwork to a building you can stand in is very satisfying,” Byrne said.

Listening House has been a day shelter for people experiencing poverty and homelessness since its first location in 1983. They provide visitors with food, private bathrooms that include showers, storage lockers and act as an address where mail can be received.

Listening House is unique among homeless shelters because of its little-to-no questions asked policy regarding guests and offering a place to sleep during the day. It’s a service Jalma said is important because of how many of their guests work at night and would therefore not be able to sleep at overnight shelters.

She said that, in fact, many of those who stop at Listening House have jobs but still experience homelessness due to increasing housing costs.

“One way to dispel a lot of the stereotypes around homelessness is talking about how vulnerable to losing our homes we all are,” Jalma said. She said that she’s seen a specific increase in homeless children and elderly.

In 2018, the Minnesota Homeless Study and Wilder Research found that people aged 24 and younger make up 15% of the homeless population, and that people aged 55 and older were the fastest growing homeless population. Both homeless groups had increased in population since 2015.

Additions planned

Homelessness also often means a lack of important documents such as birth certificates, which can be a further barrier to finding housing. Services that provide help getting copies of documents and filling out housing applications will be available at the new location, alongside medical and mental health counseling provided by Listening House partners such as Clinic 555 and Minnesota Community Care.

Listening House also intends to expand the building to include more bathrooms, more sleeping areas, three “quiet rooms” for more private counseling, as well as an outdoor courtyard.

Jalma said that the plan is to start work on the building’s additions “as soon as possible,” within the next 60 days, and that she hopes for it to be finished by autumn 2024. The final facility will be 8,200 square feet in size

Jeff Stromgren, the architect who designed the new location, has helped build everything from places of worship to cheese curd factories. He said it was “incredibly gratifying” to work on the project.

Criticism from neighbors

Listening House faced opposition to the new facility, including a lawsuit from local businesses in 2022.

The previous location on West Seventh Street drew criticism and a lawsuit from neighbors who said officials did not screen guests for drugs, as well as accusations involving litter, loitering and fighting.

Jalma said that there were instances where she felt Listening House was blamed for incidents they had no involvement in, citing a time she was called over a shopping cart that had been left blocks away from the building.

“When there’s that much hyperbole, it’s hard to know what’s real,” she said. However, she also said she was thankful for community members who were willing to communicate and share information.

Elyse Pennica, the program and services manager at Listening House, has been working at Listening House for less than a year. She started in June as a part-time office manager, and was excited when her current position became available.

Currently, Listening House employs 11 people, and relies mostly on volunteer work.

“Being of help and service to others is so important, and being there for the guests, that’s my favorite part,” Pennica said.

The courtyard to be built was one thing that excited her. She said it excited guests, too. Some were interested in starting a community garden.

“I see only great things in our future,” she said.

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