The Anoka City Council made final Monday a moratorium that puts a hold on any new shelters or boarding houses for as long as a year.
The decision came after emotional pleas from many supporters of HOPE 4 Youth, a drop in center for teens experiencing homelessness.
HOPE 4 Youth is working on plans to offer overnight emergency shelter for young people ages 18 to 24 at its Fourth Avenue facility.
The moratorium will give the city time to study both the options for locations in the city that are appropriate for shelters and boarding houses, as well craft an ordinance laying out regulations this type of facility would need to follow.
The moratorium was unanimously approved by the council.
Anoka resident Barbara Deeds Baldwin called on the city to make a short-term exception that would allow HOPE 4 Youth to offer shelter beds right away and give the organization time to come up with a long-term plan.
“If this ordinance is passed it should include an exception for HOPE 4 Youth for six months so these young people will have a place to sleep and out of danger of the sub-zero temperatures we have been having,” she said.
Baldwin said with young people sleeping in tents it is a real possibility a young person could freeze to death.
Chris Mickman, also an Anoka resident, said he supports the HOPE 4 Youth shelter 100 percent.
“Imagine sleeping outside tonight in the snow, somewhere,” Mickman said. “Many people in this room may want the problem to go away, to disappear to Minneapolis or anywhere but here but these people come from here, they come from our region and they need help to get on their feet, to go to school or to their jobs.”
Mayor Phil Rice repeated his sentiments from last week’s special meeting – that he feels the city of Anoka already does its part in providing shelter for the homeless.
“I think we provide more than our share of shelter for our community and the communities around us,” Rice said. “I think the other cities in Anoka County should be providing shelter.”
Last year Stepping Stone Emergency Housing moved from Ferry Street to a new location in the Cronin Building on Anoka County property.
As of Labor Day, the shelter had a capacity for 60 people experiencing homelessness, according to Stepping Stone’s Executive Director Kevin Martineau. There are 140 people on the waiting list.
As of Monday, Stepping Stone was providing shelter to nine people in that 18-24 age range, said Don Kjonaas, a vice chairperson of Stepping Stone’s board of directors, who also chairs Anoka’s Planning Commission.
Kjonaas said Stepping Stone is willing to work with HOPE 4 Youth to try to help young people experiencing homelessness.
He also said he hopes the moratorium can be lifted quickly – Stepping Stone has a capital campaign underway to build a commercial kitchen at the Cronin Building so meals can be provided onsite and clients can learn cooking skills.
HOPE 4 Youth founder Brian Swanson said the cold makes the issue especially emotional right now. But kids need a warm and safe place to stay all year long, he said.
“We do have a problem to solve,” he said.
HOPE 4 Youth is looking for creative solutions and would like to continue discussions with the city to figure something out, according to Swanson.
“HOPE 4 Youth is here because we are losing sleep at night when we know kids are in unsafe conditions,” Swanson said.
He also asked for staff and council to make this issue a priority and work with HOPE 4 Youth to find a solution.
Swanson said the publicity both HOPE 4 Youth and the issue of young people experiencing homelessness has lead to a lot of feedback.
“It has opened up a lot of good conversations about more possibilities of how to serve youth in Anoka County,” Swanson said.
Under current city zoning, shelters are only allowed in areas zone R4 high density residential. There are pockets of R4 zoning throughout the city.
The area where HOPE 4 Youth is located is zoned for residential transit oriented development.
City Manager Tim Cruikshank said that even without a moratorium, to process an application for the rezoning and conditional approval for a shelter would take at least two months.
This would include investigation by city staff on code compliance, review by the Planning Commission followed by a vote of the city council.
Councilmember Mark Freeburg said the city has been working for a dozen years on a redevelopment plan for the land around the Northstar Commuter Rail Station – the same neighborhood where HOPE 4 Youth is located.
“This is zoned a certain way for a certain future and certain development,” he said. “If we rezoned it for use (as a shelter) it would open up the floodgates to other entities.”
Freeburg said Anoka’s low cost real estate makes it attractive to those interested in being a landlord of a boarding house.
“I feel your emotion,” he said. “It isn’t as easy as turning on a light switch.”
Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]