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St. Paul drop-in center celebrates 20 years
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People hoping to escape the cold line up at the door of Listening House in downtown St. Paul. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
Twenty years ago a small drop-in center opened on a busy downtown St. Paul street corner. It was unnoticed by most St. Paul residents, but among the city's homeless population, word spread fast. The buzz was fueled by rumors that homeless guests could relax for hours at a time, enjoy a hot cup of coffee and even play the guitar. The new facility was called Listening House.

St. Paul, Minn. — Listening House opened in 1983 with two folding chairs and a unique mission.

"It started with the philosophy, 'Don't preach, don't fix, just listen,'" says Rose Marie Reger Rumsey.

Rumsey is executive director of Listening House. She says the founders based their approach on what they learned from their work on the streets. In trying to meet people's physical and material needs, they also spent a lot of time talking to the homeless and just listening. Rumsey says it may seem like a small gesture, but it's vital in making people feel valued and accepted. She likens the experience to sitting around grandma's kitchen table.

"Hello everyone," she says. "So, is anyone cheating?"

"Someone's always cheating," one of the players replies. "Want me to tell you what he has?" Rumsey asks.

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Image Director Rose Marie Reger Rumsey

"Could you," the player asks, laughing. "Would you?"

"We could do it in signals," Rumsey says.

Card games are a daily occurrence at Listening House. Several games are underway as Rumsey gingerly winds her way across the main floor, which is jammed with tables, lounging chairs and sofas.

Every seat is occupied.

"Listening House was dubbed the living room of the homeless from a guest who was using the place. And it had to do primarily with the fact that we have couches and easy chairs, as well as tables and chairs for playing cards or chess or writing, or whatever they need it for," says Rumsey. "But the whole idea that there was someplace where they could come -- or as some people say, there is always a place to lay at Listening House."

A few feet away from the card game, a woman named Sandra has just awakened from a nap. She's one of the lucky few on this day to land a spot on a couch. Sandra squints her eyes as she explains, somewhat sheepishly, why she's so tired.

"Today, actually to be honest, I slept. I rested today 'cause yesterday I was running around, and it was a half a day here, and I didn't get any rest. So today I chose just to relax," Sandra says. "That's what I did and it was very peaceful."

Rumsey is quick to point out Listening House is not supporting idleness.

"There is a fatigue factor connected with being homeless that is often times overlooked. People are very tired. Some people have spent the night walking the street or riding the bus, because the shelters have overflowed," she says.

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Image Barber James Clark

One guest who doesn't want to be identified says he's been coming to Listening House off and on for the past 17 years. He says it's often the high point of his day, particularly in the winter months.

"Whether it's mittens or a snack or a cup of coffee -- especially that cup of coffee. That's my first thought when I get up in the morning, because I do sleep out in the cold 365 days a year. Regardless of how cold and windy, etc., I'm out there," he says.

The 57-year-old man has survived cancer and Vietnam. He says he always gets a smile or a hello from someone working at Listening House. But he says the drop-in center does have a negative side too. He says some guests abuse drugs. Rumsey doesn't deny that a number of Listening House clients have a substance abuse problem, but she says drug dealing is not allowed.

"We know that we're not working with angels, but the purpose of the Listening House mission is to find the goodness within another person. And our approach as a staff is to look for that goodness, and then begin to focus on it, until the guest believes that they have some goodness and that is when the change can begin," Rumsey says.

Rumsey says unfounded suspicions about Listening House almost shut it down for good in 1995. City Council members were upset about a report that Listening House was harboring criminals. The center lost its lease, and Rumsey says the Council was planning to vote on an ordinance that would have zoned Listening House out of downtown St. Paul.

"We went en masse down to City Hall, and every form of media became involved in that particular situation. We gained new allies, and at that time Mayor Coleman was in place, and he was instrumental in getting a businessman to negotiate with Catholic Charities so that we got the space that we currently reside in," Rumsey says.

A few other things have changed in the years since Listening House first opened its doors. A lot more people are using it. An average of 180 people come through the doors each day, compared to a couple dozen 20 years ago.

We know that we're not working with angels, but the purpose of the Listening House mission is to find the goodness within another person.
- Rose Marie Reger Rumsey, director of Listening House

Many of them look for James Clark, who gives free haircuts.

"I come down here and I cut hair because I like it. I cut women hair, men hair, as you see," says Clark. "You could be white, black, chocolate, you could be purple if you want. You know, if you want a haircut, I can give it to you and it won't cost you anything. It's just because you're here."

Clark was a Listening House guest until the center helped him find permanent housing. To show his gratitude, he volunteers at the drop-in center a few hours each week.

Listening House is also a magnet for street-based social workers trying to track down their clients. Julie Grothe is a superviser with the Hearth Connection, a program funded by the Legislature to find housing for homeless people with persistent mental illness and substance abuse problems. Grothe says her job would be a lot more difficult without access to Listening House.

"I guess we'd have to wander around on the streets to try and find them. I honestly can't even imagine. Without someplace like this, it would be hard," says Grothe. "We'd have to meet people like probably early in the morning at Salvation Army, when they serve breakfast. Or try and go to the places where they serve meals. That would be the only other way we could do it."

Elizabeth Cowan works for People Incorporated, another street-outreach team. She's responsible for helping homeless people who don't stay in the shelters. Many of them set up makeshift camps under bridges or in remote park areas. Cowan tries to convince them to come in off the streets. But if they turn her down, she will leave outdoor gear for them at Listening House.

"At the bigger shelters it's harder for me to leave stuff for people, because the staff up front at the big shelters tells me, 'It may not be here. You can leave it here, but I can't promise, because I can't watch it all the time,'" Cowan says.

When Cowan manages to get a homeless camper into an apartment, she says it's not uncommon for them to still want to spend part of their days with their friends at Listening House.

Executive Director Rose Marie Reger Rumsey says Listening House is all about building relationships. It's intended to prepare homeless people for their next step -- housing and jobs.

Listening House was founded on religious principles, but over the years that connection has faded. Rumsey says an effort to remove some religious symbols a few years ago was met with outrage by Listening House guests who demanded that they be re-installed. The symbols remain to this day.

"One of the most requested items is a rosary -- and not because we have a lot of Catholics. It's the crucifix that's on the rosary, and people hold on to it when they are feeling desperate," she says.

Rumsey says some of the guests have told her that the rosaries help them maintain their sobriety.

Listening House has received funding from the Minnesota Legislature in the past. It didn't get any money this year, but Rumsey is optimistic the funding will be restored in future years. The drop-in center also relies on donations from corporations, individuals and churches.

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