Anoka has put a pause on any new shelters or boarding houses in the city.
The Anoka City Council unanimously approved a moratorium on this type of facility at a special meeting Dec. 9. This will give the city up to 12 months to study where shelters should be located and standards that need to be in place for operations, according to Planning Director Carolyn Braun.
Several years ago when the city addressed concerns for a growing number of sober houses in the community the city did not look at standards for shelters, or boarding houses, Braun said.
“This is an important issue for the city,” said City Attorney Scott Baumgartner. “A moratorium allows the city to deal with that the right way the first time.”
According to Baumgartner, the city does not have to take the full 12 months for the moratorium, which can be undone at any time by a vote of the council once new standards are in place.
The moratorium has an immediate effect on HOPE 4 Youth, which is in the middle of making an application to the city to provide overnight shelter to homeless young people from age 18-24 at its facility on Fourth Avenue.
HOPE 4 Youth is a drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness, offering resources, a place to shower, do laundry, have a meal and stay warm.
“The problem is, we have kids who are cold,” said State Rep. Jim Abeler, who owns the Old Milk Factory building on Fourth Avenue where HOPE 4 Youth is located.
“There are many compelling stories about young people in Anoka who have no home.”
In the past nine months, HOPE 4 Youth has been visited more than 2,000 times by over 200 different young people, according to Brian Swanson, chairperson of the organization’s board of directors.
Some of those young people are spending their nights outside, sleeping in tents.
About 30 HOPE 4 Youth supporters attended Monday’s special meeting on the moratorium.
Anoka Mayor Phil Rice said it would be difficult to convince him that any more shelter beds should be located in the city.
Anoka is already home to Stepping Stone Emergency Housing, which has expanded to provide 60 additional shelter beds in the Anoka County-owned Cronin Building on Rum River Human Services campus. But only four of those beds are designated for young people ages 18-24.
“I’m a mental health case manager – I know we need the services,” said Rice. “But do we as a community have the resources to support this?”
The city is also home to the state’s Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center, a center that treats those with mental illness and chemical dependency along with four private chemical treatment facilities, between two and five sober houses, one boarding house and 11 group homes for state licensed adult foster care, according to the city’s planning department.
Family Promise provides shelter for homeless families with children at a rotating group of churches in the area.
The council has not yet seen a proposal for the youth shelter. HOPE 4 Youth’s board members met with the Anoka’s Planning Commission last month during a work session, where there were many questions about how the shelter would be managed and safety measures that would be in place, said Borgie Bonthius, a member of the Planning Commission.
In order for the shelter to be allowed in this particular part of the city, a zoning change would be required and would be at the discretion of the council.
Swanson said HOPE 4 Youth has been overwhelmed by just dealing with the immediate needs of young people every single day.
HOPE 4 Youth has been learning as it goes, with limited experience in what would be required to operate an overnight shelter, he said. They don’t want to push through a concept the city is not comfortable with, according to Swanson.
“We haven’t had the time to put together a plan,” said Swanson. “We’ve been scrambling just to keep with what the youth in front of us need today.”
But he said the organization is also under pressure from its many volunteers who want these youth to be taken care of.
“Every night at 7 p.m. when we shut the doors, we are sending those kids out into the cold,” Swanson said. “Friday night, five youth spent the night outside. We lose a lot of sleep because of this.
He said the group is desperate to find a short-term solution. Even in its infancy, it has raised over $90,000 and has the support of hundreds of volunteers.
Right now only four unrelated people could stay overnight at the HOPE 4 Youth facility, said Braun, and only if the building met city code requirements, which would require the installation of a sprinkling system for fire suppression.
Abeler asked the council to postpone its decision, rather than acting at a special meeting called on Monday.
“These people were caught by surprise,” he said of the organizers and volunteers of HOPE 4 Youth.
“A lot of times we act out of fear of what might be. I don’t think you (the city) are going to get of raft of people who want to set up shelters.”
Councilmember Mark Freeburg said the city needs to take time to hear from the community.
“We have to tread lightly and go slowly,” heg said. “We have to ask what will the impact be on the community and the development of that area.”
Anoka has long-term plans for redeveloping this particular area around the Northstar Commuter Rail station, which is currently a mix of private and publicly owned properties. Future plans include both residential and commercial and retail development.
Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]