When the Dorothy Day Center opened in downtown St. Paul in 1981, it was little more than a drop-in place to get a bite to eat and line up services.
Now it’s the largest shelter in Ramsey County, so full a couple of years ago that it was forced to turn away some homeless.
It was that “canary-in-a-coal-mine” moment, said Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, that led to Thursday’s launch of a task force expected to expand and reshape Dorothy Day on its current site or elsewhere.
Mayor Chris Coleman made the announcement at the annual Dorothy Day Community Breakfast for business, faith, government and nonprofit officials.
Co-chairs will be two of the city’s most influential leaders: Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, and Carleen Rhodes, president of the Minnesota Community Foundation.
The committee will ask “the central question of what kind of community are we?” Coleman told the breakfast crowd in the Dorothy Day cafeteria.
“What kind of facilities do we need? … What are the differences between what we saw in the early 1990s and what we see today in 2013? Is it one facility, is it multiple facilities? Is it simply upgrading this facility, or is it really doing something fundamentally different?”
Later, Coleman said that the task force “likely will result in a new facility of some sort,” and that one example is the innovative Higher Ground housing facility that Catholic Charities opened last year in Minneapolis.
At Higher Ground, the first floor is an emergency shelter, the second floor has inexpensive cots for the working poor, the two floors above that are service areas and the top two floors are efficiency apartments for residents.
“It certainly is a great model, that continuum of service that really helps people transform from being out on the street to actually being stabilized into a more permanent living situation … and one we’ll look at very closely,” Coleman said.
The task force, which is being assembled, is expected to report its findings later this year. A capital campaign likely would follow.
According to Marx, who will be on the task force, it will focus on three areas: meeting shelter needs, providing services that lead to permanent housing and ensuring enough affordable housing.
Statistics help explain why the center is busting at its seams. Homelessness in Minnesota rose by 25 percent between 2006 and 2009, and since then emergency shelter use has jumped 27 percent. Contributing factors include the economic downturn, untreated mental illness and chemical dependency.
Kramer said that it was important to preserve the dignity of the people needing help. Dorothy Day currently has a capacity of 250, but it beds down many of the homeless on floor mats only inches apart.
“This is not going to be a task force that’s going to produce a wonderful report that will sit on a shelf. We can’t afford to treat people with less than the dignity they deserve,” Kramer said.
Marx said the task force also will consider how changes at Dorothy Day might help strengthen the commercial environment downtown.
A move or service reduction at Dorothy Day’s current site off Cleveland Circle — an area near the Xcel Energy Center that city officials have pitched for various projects in years past — would open the door to potential development linked to the entertainment district to the south or the medical corridor to the north.
Dorothy Day provides shelter for 81 percent of Ramsey County’s homeless and is the only county shelter for women. It serves more than 6,000 people annually and about 213,000 meals.
About two-thirds of its annual budget of $2.5 million is covered by Catholic Charities and private donations, with the balance mostly from city, county and state funds.