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Joint Planning Commission gives support to Bemidji homeless shelter

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Commission threw its support behind Ours to Serve House of Hospitality Thursday evening.

Commissioners voted unanimously to recommend approval of an interim use permit for the operation of Ours to Serve's planned new homeless shelter on the southwest corner of Mississippi Avenue Northwest and Sixth Street Northwest.

That recommendation will be forwarded to the Joint Planning Board for final consideration June 10.

Commissioner George Stowe, executive director of the North Star Chapter of the American Red Cross, said the Red Cross is responsible for providing temporary housing for families displaced by fires. Those families have occasionally been sent to the current Ours to Serve shelter on Irvine Avenue.

"We have never, ever had a problem," Stowe said. "I would be comfortable with (the new shelter) being built right next to my house in all honesty."

The new shelter is planned to house up to 28 individuals and also have four apartments for staff who would be on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The new facility will be a vast improvement from the current shelter at 417 Irvine Ave. N.W., where there are just six beds available.

Rebecca Hoffman, executive director of Ours to Serve, said the shelter turns away between 500 and 1,000 people a year.

"We are inadequately sized for the need in Beltrami County," she said.

Three people who have property near the new site addressed the JPC during the public hearing, citing concerns about the possibility of decreased property values and safety for area children.

Nickole Plorin told the JPC that there already are issues with the existing Evergreen House, a youth and family service provider.

"I'd rather not have another place of shelter put there," Plorin said, saying that she was concerned that more problems would arise.

Hoffman said Ours to Serve already has been in operation for 20 years at its current location - just one block away from the new site - and has very few problems.

When asked about the frequency of police calls to the shelter, Hoffman said she couldn't even recall the last occurrence.

"It's very, very rare," she said.

Because the shelter is open solely for families and pregnant women, the number of problems is significantly decreased, Hoffman said.

"If we keep our rules very consistent, people don't show up when they are drunk or using (drugs)," she said.

The new shelter, which will be called Village of Hope, is being financed through a $1.1 million grant from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and a $100,000 through the George W. Neilson Foundation.

Other fundraising efforts are underway, but Hoffman said she hopes to break ground on the new shelter this summer and open eight or nine months from that time.

"We have such a need that if we can make it happen, we're going to do it," she said, explaining that the timeline has been moved up one year.

The building is planned to be as "green" as possible and will meet LEED standards so it can be certified as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental design.

That desire to be a LEED facility has led to a change in design - and architects.

Bemidji architect Jim Lucachick initially designed a concept plan for the new shelter at no charge to the nonprofit.

That design was instrumental in being able to apply for - and eventually secure - the grant from the MHFA, Hoffman said.

However, once the project advanced to its current design stage, the House of Hospitality board of directors decided to hire Kuepers Inc. Architects & Builders of the Brainerd area to be the architect and general manager for the new site, Hoffman said.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to build a shelter that we need and can afford to operate," Hoffman said. "(The current design) is so exciting and just fit everything the House of Hospitality board was looking for."

Hoffman said she expects there to be no lapse in service as the non-profit moves its services from its current location to the new shelter, once open.

The board also has not decided for certain what it will do with its current facility once operations are relocated, she said.