The number of homeless people in Ramsey County is growing, prompting local government and partner organizations to open an emergency shelter in St. Paul to house people throughout the winter.
The shelter will be in a former detoxification center in the basement of the county’s downtown government center building. It will house up to 50 people per night starting Dec. 1 through the end of March.
When Catholic Charities and Union Gospel Mission beds overflow or when those shelters’ restrictions preclude someone from staying there — perhaps because of severe mental health issues or because they want to stay with a partner — the homeless often end up in skyways, in outdoor encampments or on transit.
“The skyways, our buses and our trains are not the kind of shelter we should be providing,” said City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the area.
There has been a furor over skyway safety in St. Paul this year, and city leaders decided to close the system earlier and ask building owners to improve security. Police were asking what to do when they find people in the skyways at closing time, Noecker said, “and turning them out on the street is not an option.”
When police encounter people in the skyways or on transit late at night, they will direct them to the emergency shelter at 160 Kellogg Blvd., where they will be offered services to help them get housing.
Catholic Charities will administer the emergency shelter, which will be open from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. The county and city, along with the St. Paul Foundation and its partners, will pay to prepare and operate the space at an estimated cost of $400,000.
The partners working on the emergency housing said it is a temporary solution. They are adding outreach workers and creating plans to get more people housed permanently — but the tight housing market is complicating things.
“Folks sleeping outside is a symptom of a really big backlog or problem with our housing system,” said Ann Mulholland, with the St. Paul Foundation. “If there’s not supportive housing on the other end of that outreach work, it’s all for naught.”
The availability of affordable housing in the metro is shrinking, she said. Meanwhile, the number of unsheltered people in Ramsey County increased 22 percent to 136 in 2017, according to an annual count of how many people are homeless on one night.
“With vacancies in affordable housing at an all-time low, increasing rents and stagnant incomes, it is harder than ever for individuals living on lower incomes to find affordable, safe and long-term housing,” County Commissioner Jim McDonough said in a statement.