There is only one final step left before a warming shelter has the go-ahead to open in Brainerd, but a couple community members have concerns.

Two Brainerd residents brought their worries about the shelter’s placement on South Sixth Street before the planning commission Wednesday, Nov. 17. The five commissioners present still unanimously signed off on the permit, sending it to the city council for final approval next week.

In a joint effort, nonprofit Bridges of Hope, Crow Wing County and various other community organizations and churches are working to open a shelter that would provide beds for adults from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. during the winter.

“I’m not opposed to a shelter in Brainerd, but I’m opposed to the location of this shelter,” south Brainerd resident Dawn Graff told the commission Wednesday. “It’s less than half a block from my home. I’m extremely concerned about how people are going to get to and from the shelter. I get up and walk every morning at 6 a.m. I’m not comfortable with the fact that people are going to be loitering around — I know not during the sleeping hours — but getting to and from the shelter. I’m worried about vandalism, property damage, my property values.”

Without wanting to sound selfish, Graff said she has been in her home for more than 40 years and has strong concerns.

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Jan Burton, who lives on Terrace Avenue in Brainerd, brought several questions forward, such as where the people using the shelter are coming from and if they will just be wandering the streets during the day. She also asked about the experience working with homeless people of Jana Shogren, Bridges of Hope executive director who has been a community voice for the project.

Other community members shared their support for the project. Emma Crust has been volunteering with Bridges of Hope to help get the shelter started and said, as someone who has experienced homelessness, a shelter like this would have likely helped her to get back on her feet easier.

“Our community is facing a housing and homelessness crisis, and we have been for a long time,” Crust said.

And to Burton’s point about where the shelter clients will come from, Crust said they are already here.

“They’re in our backyards; they’re in our abandoned buildings; their cars are parked out in your alleyways,” she said. “Having this place and having that support, I think, is going to be a really intrical part of maybe changing the direction of this and being able to get people off on a better foot and maybe shedding a little bit of light that — again — these are very good people. Most of them will just want to keep their head down and be thankful and blessed that they have somewhere to stay. And I just really want to emphasize the fact that they’re already here.”

Danell Eggert, manager of Common Goods in Baxter, reminded those present that anyone could be one bad decision or one unforeseen disaster away from being homeless themselves.

“The difference is, most of us have a support network, but not everybody has a support network,” Eggert said.

She then relayed a conversation she had recently with a customer, who told her about his son, who was living in the Twin Cities and struggled with alcoholism, lost his driver’s license and job, moved in with a girlfriend and had nowhere to go when that relationship didn’t work out. He would have been homeless had he not been able to come back to the lakes area and live with his parents.

“These aren’t evil people,” Eggert said. “Maybe they just had a misfortune, or they didn’t have the right connections or the help to get them to a good place. So that’s what we’re hoping this can be.”

Brainerd Planning Commission members consider an interim use permit for a shelter on South Sixth Street during their meeting Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021.
Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Brainerd Planning Commission members consider an interim use permit for a shelter on South Sixth Street during their meeting Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. Screenshot by Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Quelling concerns

Several times during Wednesday’s meeting, the point of homelessness already existing in Brainerd was brought forth.

Nathan Bertram, adult services supervisor at Crow Wing County Community Services, spoke about the county’s COVID-19 sheltering program, which provided hotel vouchers over the past year for those who did not have a place to stay. The program averaged about 22.5 people per night seeking shelter, he said. And since 2017, Crow Wing County Community Services has averaged about 103 walk-ins per year.

“They’re in our community. They’re walking in our doors asking for help,” he said. “It really is a disservice when we have to send them to St. Cloud to that homeless shelter and people get lost along the way, and we can’t get them connected to the services that we need to get them connected to. So I really think this is an opportunity for us to keep our own people local and get them connected to the resources here in our own community and hopefully get them the help they need to move forward and get housed.”

The commission also heard from Ann Hunnicutt, a retired Baxter police sergeant with a degree in social work who is on board to be the shelter’s director.

“My goal as a shelter is to keep the community safe,” Hunnicutt said. “My children go to school here. All of our children go to school here. We all have to live here, and I want to make sure that the community feels safe. It is my job, and I will do it well to make sure that it is ran effectively and safely for the community and also for the guests and the staff.”

Hunnicutt said she plans to work collaboratively with area law enforcement and hospitals when the shelter opens.

The model for the shelter is largely based on the Wolfe Center in Bemidji, with organizers also looking at one in Rochester for inspiration. Those programs, they said, have been safe and effective for their respective communities.

While Shogren acknowledged that she herself does not have experience running a homeless shelter — nor do many people in Brainerd, likely — she outlined her career working with community development and children and families living in poverty.

“It doesn’t just hinge on what I know. We have an entire team who has worked with the population we are talking about,” Shogren said, pointing again to Hunnicutt, partnerships with law enforcement and the trained staff who will be at the shelter while it is open.

“We definitely have an understanding of the folks who are facing homelessness,” Shogren added. “And we are not reinventing the wheel. We are not doing it ourselves. We’re closely modeling this program after other successful existing programs.”

Security cameras will be placed inside and outside the facility for staff to monitor at all times.

Shogren also urged those with questions to call Bridges of Hope at 218-825-7682 and ask for her or Hunnicutt.

Getting the permit

After amending the city’s zoning code to include shelters as an allowable use in Brainerd, the planning commission recommended approval of an interim use permit for the South Sixth Street property.

The following stipulations for shelters are included in the zoning code:

  • Operation shall not exceed 16 continuous hours.

  • Facility occupancy shall not exceed 30 beds or total occupancy of the facility as set by the fire marshal, whichever is less.

  • Facility shall be staffed during all hours of operation.

  • 24-hour contact information shall be provided to the Brainerd Police Department and Crow Wing County Community Services.

  • Outdoor storage of equipment, furniture, personal items or other possessions of those using the facility is not permitted, except in the case of a rack for bicycles.

  • Facility shall meet all applicable building, safety, fire and health code requirements.

Staff added two additional conditions to the Bridges of Hope permit. First is that the permit will expire on June 1, 2022 and must be renewed with the council and planning commission if the shelter wishes to continue operating. The second condition is the city council could reconsider or revoke the permit if the Brainerd Police Department determines the facility has been used in a disorderly manner and the police chief recommends action.

Commissioners approved the permit on a 5-0 vote, with Chris Foley and Matt Kallroos absent.

“I’m really proud of the work the organizers have done,” Commissioner Don Gorham said. “You make me feel really good about this community that I live in.”

The community has so far raised more than $200,000 for the project.

Tad Erickson, city council liaison to the planning commission, said if this were a request for the city to run a shelter, he would likely vote no. But because this project is largely spearheaded by nonprofits and organizers who are going in with their eyes wide open, he said he supports the permit with the added conditions.

In response to the concerns of the shelter’s location, Commissioner Theresa Woodward said the spot is close to resources — like a gas station, laundromat and soup kitchen — and those going to and from the shelter will likely use only South Sixth Street.

Commissioner Kevin Yeager ultimately motioned to recommend approval of the permit.

“I’d like to commend those in the room for the nobility of your work,” Yeager said. “I’d like to thank you and acknowledge your efforts and the grit that you’ve invested thus far to even make this a possibility.”

The permit will go before the city council for final approval during a special meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 22. If approved, Shogren said the shelter could open soon and would likely stay open through April 30.

For more information on the project, visit bridgesofhopemn.org/warmingshelter.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.