When Kao Vue was released after spending 16 years in prison, he expected to live in a bare-bones shelter. He was stunned when he arrived at Stepping Stone in Anoka.
Everywhere were signs that hinted that Stepping Stone would exceed expectations: From the naturally bright lobby to the park brushing against the Rum River within walking distance, Anoka County's revamped adult homeless shelter offers inviting and inspiring touches for the downtrodden.
"I want a new start in life," said Vue, 42, who came to Stepping Stone Emergency Housing last month. As he turned to a wall that posted the daily menu and laundry and hair-cut sign-up sheets, he said, "For somebody like me, who has nothing except the hope of starting over, this is my best chance."
Earlier this year, he might have had to wait months for this chance.
Stepping Stone, then a 20-bed neighborhood facility on Ferry Street just north of Hwy. 10, had a waiting list of 80 people. It's the county's only homeless shelter for adults, and it houses those who are down and out as well as ex-cons.
The list hasn't gotten any smaller, but now Stepping Stone is located in the Cronin Building on Anoka County's Rum River Human Services campus, several blocks northeast of Anoka's Northstar station, and it will have 60 available beds when completed.
The Ferry Street facility had 2,000 square feet. The new Stepping Stone has 8,000.
"It was a long time coming," said Anoka County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah. "It really is a very nice facility which will allow them to continue to meet some of the needs that exist ... and serve homeless veterans in our community, as well."
Heather Ries, the shelter's longtime director, marvels at the number of volunteers and local companies that donated the time and materials that allowed the new facility to open in late September. From Home Depot, which supplied 43 volunteers, to local Eagle Scout Sam Bredenkamp, who cleaned up the courtyard, the transformation of the 30-year-old building was as unexpected as it was timely, Ries said.
It's not perfect. Ries worries about subtle "triggers" she sees throughout the building. Dinners are served on trays, just as they would be in the workhouse. Some clients may have been housed in the facility when it was used as a lockdown treatment center. Even with an open gate, the "Stalag 13" fence around the outdoor smoking area could be perceived as an intimidating reminder of what the facility once was -- or where clients once were.
But the previous location also had drawbacks. On Ferry Street, "neighbors had concern for the safety and security of their yards," Ries said. "They'd entertain themselves by watching our clients."
At the Cronin site, the campus atmosphere is used to advantage. The dormlike rooms have a homey feeling. There's space between the sets of bunk beds in each room. Closet space is ample. There are bulletin boards for pictures.
The women's and men's sections have separate lounges with refrigerators, couches and TV sets. Each wing has two bathrooms. There are racks of donated clothes.
Away from the Ferry Street neighborhood, the new space "lends itself more to community involvement," Ries said. She hopes to bring in a master gardener who can advise the staff what to plant. There's the river for fishing. There's even a homeless cat that brings clients the mice she catches, Rise said.
Clients stay an average of 29 days at Stepping Stone.
There is structure -- as obvious as the locks on the dorm windows. A 90-day program includes classes, one-on-one mentoring and a transitional program.
"If you've never had accountability, it's hard to follow our rules," said Ries.
"They don't want to be cold, hungry," Ries said. "In return for a roof over their heads, we ask that they invest in themselves. We want to get them back on their feet. We want this to be about dignity."
In the lobby, among the homemade posters, signs and white-board listings, there is this message:
"Two things will define your success in life: the way you manage when you have nothing and the way you behave when you have everything."
By the time they leave Stepping Stone, the most successful clients fall somewhere in between.
"We work hard to let them know they're in a community," Ries said.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419