When the Dorothy Day Center opened more than 30 years ago in St. Paul, mostly volunteers provided hot meals for adult men who were temporarily down on their luck. Operated by Catholic Charities, the building was a daytime-only drop-in center for those who couldn't afford to buy their own food.
Today, the center provides not only food to eat, but a place to stay for the night for homeless men and women. The needs are so great that the center puts up some of its clients in a former funeral home nearby. And on some nights when the facility is packed to capacity, the center turns people away or refers them to other shelters.
A Wilder Research report released several months ago found that while chronic homelessness is down, the total number of Minnesotans lacking reliable housing on any given night was 10,214, a 6 percent increase since 2009.
That need is why a recently released new vision for Dorothy Day merits community support. A task force on overnight adult shelters, convened by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, issued a smart set of recommendations that will better serve homeless adults in crisis and help them become more self-sufficient.
The vision for Dorothy Day was well-informed by another Catholic Charities project, in Minneapolis. The new Higher Ground complex is successfully serving a similar population of homeless adults by offering clients supportive transitional services such as health care, job assistance and computer access.
Instead of just mats on the floor, each person has a bed and locker for belongings. When people find work, they can move to another floor with private rooms and efficiency apartments. That low-cost housing provides some stability while they save up to eventually move out and live on their own. Model programs like Higher Ground have contributed to reductions in the numbers of homeless veterans.
The St. Paul task force suggests building a new shelter and housing facility just northeast of downtown, close to other existing services. Nearby would be a Connection Center to house resources for those at risk of becoming homeless or those working their way out of homelessness.
The project would roll out in three phases over several years. The first two phases to build the northeast site would cost about $65 million. Financing is expected to come from a combination of public, private and nonprofit sources — including from an expected $100 million request for more supportive and affordable housing in the 2014 Legislature's bonding bill.
A third phase would build permanent housing on the site of the current center to replace deteriorating housing in or near downtown and expand the number of affordable units.
Key to the vision is including the wraparound support services that the homeless need to get back on their feet and become self-sufficient. That's an investment that is good not only for the individuals served but for the wider community. Reducing homelessness and putting people to work is good for the future prosperity of the region and the state.
Matt Kramer, task force cochair and president of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, said the northeast location was chosen for its proximity to Ramsey County's new chemical and mental health center, the city/county law enforcement complex, transit and the Union Gospel Mission just across the freeway.
At the same time, the permanent housing proposed for the current site would maintain Dorothy Day's longtime presence in downtown and also give Catholic Charities a highly visible branding location.
Coalitions of the government, business, and nonprofit and volunteer sectors in Minnesota have demonstrated that they can reduce homelessness. The proposed new strategy for Dorothy Day can help build on that success.