Wright Path proposal greeted by stiff resistance from residents
The council chambers of the New Richmond Civic Center was standing room only for last Thursday night's community meeting to discuss the potential purchase of the former Arthur Rose Assisted Living property for conversion into a transitional housing program by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Wright Path.
The proposal came on the heels of the much publicized closing of the Lowrey Hotel Aug. 31. The Lowrey served informally as transitional housing for low income and disadvantaged community members including homeless veterans, folks with mental health issues, folks with substance abuse issues and / or people with criminal records including sex offenders. The Lowrey was owned by the James Beebe Family and managed by Wright Path board member, Stacy Wright.
The 6.5-acre Rose property is bordered by 180th Avenue on the north, the New Richmond Golf Course on the east, Fourth Street/Highway 64 on the south and First Lutheran Church and Childcare Center on the west.
Prior to getting underway, City Administrator Mike Darrow reminded audience members the purpose of the meeting was for everyone present including City Council members, to hear Wright Path's proposal and to give audience members an opportunity to ask questions and state their concerns in a respectful fashion.
"Tonight is about dignity and respect. I know there are a lot of differing opinions but regardless of the issues, we're a lot better when we work together. There's nothing that's going to be decided tonight. There's many steps to this (process). This is the first opportunity for them to hear from you. It's an opportunity for the city, even though there is no application proposed and no affiliation with Wright Path, for all of us to hear more about their idea," said Darrow.
Wright Path Board President Russ Utecht opened the discussion by introducing himself and his fellow board of directors: Father John Anderson, State Rep. Rob Stafsholt, Jan Utecht, Stacy Wright, Debbie Clennon, Brent Norberg and New Richmond attorney Gary Bakke. Bakke narrated a presentation which spelled out the organization's mission, goals and motivation. Wright Path's goal was listed as "to provide temporary and long term safe housing for adult individuals, and occasionally families, that would otherwise be homeless because of financial challenges or other issues that prevent them from securing more standard housing. We plan to have 24/7 staff on duty. To the best of our financial ability we also hope to provide some services such as an appropriate meals each day, essential transportation, assistance to obtain employment and appropriate rules to encourage each individual to achieve success so they no longer need our assistance.
"We know that the need is much greater than we can fulfill but we believe we can offer a valuable service for at-risk individuals while, at the same time, providing a service to the New Richmond community by shouldering a responsibility that would otherwise fall on government."
Wright Path anticipated several concerns and Bakke addressed them. Wright Path does not consider itself as competition for Grace Place but rather as a complimentary program able to house residents longer than the three-month limit at Grace Place. Based on the Lowrey experience, the need for affordable housing is much greater than Grace Place alone can address. Wright Path intends to charge residents based on their ability to pay but no one who is totally destitute would be turned away. Wright Path pledges to put residents' safety first and plans to employ a vetting process that will turn away sex offenders, violent criminals and threatening personalities.
Wright Path does not intend to employ Wright within the day-to-day program operations but rather allow her to continue to advocate on behalf of the less fortunate outside of the program. Over the next hour and half, more than 15 residents, some of whose children attend First Lutheran Childcare Center, conveyed with great conviction a wide range of concerns including: the potential threat posed by adults in the program to the children and staff next door at the childcare program; the loss of potential tax revenue to a nonprofit; the potential negative effect of such a program on property values in the immediate neighborhood; how program residents would be vetted; how the program would deal with behavioral issues that could affect neighbors; transportation and safety issues with Highway 64 particularly in the winter; and underestimation of the training required for a program to be successful.
New Richmond resident and St. Paul police officer Randy Axtell noted from his experience that "increases in shelter and housing similar to this in the city, it seems like it almost draws and makes the problem bigger in the city. We're to the point now where we've started to have camps across the entire city because it becomes a beacon to those looking for housing and it's just not enough." Resident Corey Erickson, father of two boys enrolled in the First Lutheran Childcare program, noted the close proximity of the soccer field and playground to the proposed program and the waist height fence being the only deterrent to stop a dangerous Wright Path resident from hopping the fence and trying to take an infant. He stated there is zero room for risk and even a single incident with a child is unacceptable.
Having spoken with Beebe, Erickson conveyed Beebe's strong opposition to the proposal and his invitation, open to anyone who has questions about why this is dangerous, to reach out to him. "I think I can speak for a lot of the people here, but I'll speak for myself. I don't think anyone here is opposed to the mission that Gary is talking about. The mission is a good and noble mission. It's the location that they've proposed and frankly, the leadership in Miss Wright, that are unacceptable," said Erickson. Following a particularly long-winded answer to a question by Bakke, First Lutheran Pastor Amelia Houdek took the podium and delivered a brief statement to members of her flock in the audience. "Because you do not necessarily support this does not mean that you are not compassionate. It does not mean that we do not care for the homeless. It does not mean that we do not see the need and want to meet the need here in this community because again I think we do and that's one of the reasons why I live here. First Lutheran Church as a whole does not say we are for this particular situation or against it because the reality is that we know there is a homeless situation here in New Richmond and we are very passionate about finding solutions," said Houdek.
She argued that the isolated nature of the Rose property, though bucolic, suffers from limited access to gasoline and food.
"We are not close to the Walmart, to the Family Fresh. We are not close to the food shelf or our thrift stores. So what position does that put our homeless people in? Isolated and alone and unable to also get other needs. Oh, I know that there is this idea of transportation will be provided. Really?" said Houdek. "I question the location of what this entity is not because I don't want you in my backyard, because that would be a false impression and make our church and our people and this community severely uncompassionate. That's not true.
"But even for the sake of those who will utilize this facility my friends, is it good for them to be isolated, to not be able to, talking about dignity, to be able to go to the store when they want to go to the store, to be able to do these things and access these things that you and I take for granted? Again, First Lutheran Church on the record, is neither for or against this. That is not where we stand. We're for helping those in need, but I believe as pastor Amelia Houdek, and mark that down, that this location doesn't serve the community well and ultimately it does not serve those which this mission tires to reach." Robyn Thibado, Associate Director at West CAP, was the next to speak. "First of all, people who are homeless are people. They're good people in the world and people that have made really poor choices. Just because somebody is homeless doesn't mean that they are a bad person or that they even have a criminal record. I just want to make that clear."
She detailed the lack of resources in the area, noting that at least 200 households in the seven-county service area are homeless.
"New Richmond has a homeless problem. There are people that are from here, they're not coming from other places, people that were born and raised here that are homeless now. We need more community collaboration. We need to work with businesses and we need to work with the churches. We all need to work together, everybody deserves a roof over their head. My issue is, like somebody stated earlier, the leadership is a problem here. It's not about fixing people and deciding who deserves it and who doesn't. While you may have all the good intentions in the world, I don't think you are prepared to take this on," said Thibado.
Wright defended herself and conceded that Arthur Rose might not be the solution. She also provided more math to make the homeless issue real.
"Arthur Rose may not be the best place to do what we want to do, but at the time when we were closing the Lowrey down, when people had nowhere to go, it was a viable choice that God put in front of us. Maybe he put it in front of us for other reasons. I'm not the horrible person some people are making me out to be. All I want to do is help people, and this community needs help. People don't understand that it's not the 50 people who lived at the Lowrey Hotel at the end, it's 250 people a year who went through there. If you do the math, that's over 90,000 nights that homeless or near homeless people have needed a place to go to in this town.
"Why New Richmond? Because New Richmond has positioned itself to help the needy. They fought to have the community nursing home here. They have all the community health services here. They have Five Loaves and Two Fish, Ruby's Pantry, Grace Place, the New Richmond Foundation and Bremer Foundation. They have positioned themselves so that this is where these homeless people are going to come because this is where the help is. "We all need your backing. We need you to volunteer. We need you to stand up and say something to the city. We need financial help and again, they're your brothers and sisters, your cousins, your grandchildren and your neighbors. I didn't grow up with any of them, but I'm not going to turn my back on them either," said a defiant Wright.