Guardian Angels church is converting its vacant rectory into a homeless shelter and working with other area churches to fill a void.
Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Oakdale is teaming up with other local churches to open a new overnight homeless shelter in a vacant rectory.
It will serve homeless families beginning on Labor Day, with room for 13 to 20 guests at any given time, said Denny Farrell, parish administrator.
The program is designed to provide shelter from one to about 13 nights, with kids bused to their usual schools each weekday morning and parents getting help finding work and housing through a day resource center at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, a partner in the effort, Farrell said.
The overnight shelter in a vacant parish house is a first for churches in Washington County, where there is no homeless shelter.
The project, begun last March by three women from the parish, is gaining momentum as an interdenominational force to address suburban homelessness, said the Rev. Rodger Bauman.
Volunteers are converting the two-story house where priests, and later nuns, once lived. It has seven bedrooms for the homeless families and another for overnight volunteers, along with a kitchen, laundry room, kids' play area, six bathrooms and a patio. Guest families will be screened to make sure that drugs, alcohol and domestic violence are not a problem.
Last week, Dean Sherburne, Mike Knutzen and Richard Smith joined other Guardian Angels volunteers installing doors and hammering away at other renovating tasks.
"I'm so pleased that they've decided to make use of this building," Sherburne, 66, said as he paused from his carpentry. "There's a lot of it that's not being used, and they're reaching out to people in the community who are in need."
The one-year pilot project, dubbed "Hope for the Journey Home," symbolizes a trend in which old religious facilities are being used in new ways. From St. Paul Park to Maplewood to Somerset, Wis., and beyond, shelters are being built in former rectories, convents and monasteries.
A growing number of empty religious facilities are being reused for other purposes as more priests buy their own retirement homes and fewer women become nuns, said Jeannie Kilde, director of religious studies at the University of Minnesota.
Space is available at Guardian Angels for similar reasons: Priests who used to live there now own homes, and nuns who lived there after the priests left have moved to a motherhouse in Mankato or to a new ministry, said Sally Prupich. She and fellow parishioners Marla Simmet and Karen Fitzpatrick are leading the effort.
Other churches are joining in the cause, with at least 15 in Washington County and northeastern Ramsey County so far pledging to provide volunteers for one week at a time, Prupich said.
About 40 volunteers are needed each week to help the guest families with meals, getting kids onto the school bus and helping with homework, Prupich said.
"The recession has hit the suburbs," Simmet said at the parish house last week, noting that lost jobs and foreclosures are putting people on the streets, including families with small children who can be severely affected.
The homeless in Washing- ton County and suburban Ramsey County are sleeping in fish houses, campgrounds, cars, barns, tents, storage units, garages and even alleys, according to a survey last January.
In Washington County alone, the number of homeless people went from 75 in 2005 to 381 as of Jan. 25, said Diane Elias, a county planner.
At St. Andrew's Community Resource Center, outreach director Kellie Cardinal said there's a budget to help about five families stay in motel rooms each night. But the need is much greater.
"We've been having to turn away 10, 15 families every single day," she said.
Although those parents are told that St. Andrews can't help them, many are desperate and still show up, dropped at the curb by friends and family, with suitcases and children in tow. There are too many to help, Cardinal said.
"I don't think many people realize that their neighbors right here in the suburbs are struggling with homelessness, too," she said.
Cardinal and Farrell, who for 15 years had helped homeless people through Hennepin County's Families Moving Forward program, said suburban homelessness tends to be invisible compared to inner-city homelessness.
"It does look quite different, primarily due to homeless families sleeping in cars, campgrounds, hotels and couch-hopping," Cardinal said. "They aren't as visible as the urban picture we have of homelessness, with people sleeping on park benches or holding up signs on street corners."
Since Jan. 1, 2011, she said, St. Andrew's has helped 256 families. That includes 426 kids and 346 adults. Roughly 60 percent of those who stay are children, with an average age of 6 1/2, she said.
St. Andrew's will help pay utility bills for the parish house at Guardian Angels with money once paid to motels, although St. Andrew's will try to help a reduced number of families with motel stays, Cardinal said.
At least 75 volunteers at Guardian Angels have formed various committees, such as those responsible for getting furnishings, Prupich said. Part of the main level of the parish house will continue to be used by the church and for day retreats and meetings, she added.
If all goes well, Guardian Angels parishioners hope to keep the shelter going for years to come, as long as there is a need, Prupich and her fellow organizers, Fitzpatrick and Simmet, said last week.
"It is a lot of work, but it's been such an exciting idea," Simmet said. "We've been through various hurdles and here we are, with an opening date and things falling into place."
Joy Powell • 651-925-5038