Twin Cities leaders tackle a new era of homelessness

  • Article by: CHRIS COLEMAN and MATT KRAMERAND CARLEEN RHODES
  • Updated: May 2, 2013 - 6:11 AM

Leaders are responding as the community outgrows the 32-year-old Dorothy Day Center.

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2012 photo: Volunteers at the Dorothy Day Center run by Catholic Charities in St. Paul, volunteers.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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This morning, Twin Cities business, government, faith and community leaders will meet for breakfast at the Dorothy Day Center, a homeless shelter and service center managed by Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The group will reminisce about a different group of local leaders, similarly drawn from multiple sectors, who 32 years ago joined together to create the partnership that made the Dorothy Day Center a reality.

Today, we issue a call to action as the Dorothy Day Center struggles to meet the growing needs of our community.

In 1981, the center opened its doors as a place where homeless people could get a cup of coffee and a roll. In 1999, it began to provide overnight shelter to protect the homeless during brutal winter nights. In 2006, the only shelter for single women in Ramsey County was added. In 2010, an emergency overflow shelter was added next door to Dorothy Day to accommodate still-greater needs. And in 2011, the Dorothy Day Center was forced to turn people away for the first time in its history.

Dorothy Day’s rapid expansion is emblematic of what is happening throughout our community. Wilder Research found that homelessness in Minnesota grew 25 percent between 2006 and 2009 and since has grown an additional 6 percent. This is felt firsthand at Dorothy Day, where each night nearly 250 people sleep, most of them on mats just inches from one another.

Of the 6,300 people served at the Dorothy Day Center last year, nearly 400 were young adults; about one-fourth were 55 or older. Many clients need mental-health services; some are fleeing domestic violence, and more are living on the edge, making tough decisions about whether to pay rent or buy food.

For more than three decades, the Dorothy Day Center has continuously evolved to serve the changing needs of St. Paul. Today, dedicated Catholic Charities staff are supported by volunteers, foundations, and St. Paul-based companies like Ecolab and Securian, doing their part to support this critical community resource.

But the needs have far surpassed what the current Dorothy Day facility is capable of providing. The center, which cares for 81 percent of the homeless men in Ramsey County, is operating in survival mode.

Facing the economic and homelessness trends of the region, attendees at today’s breakfast will issue a renewed commitment — along with a willingness to consider a new approach — to solving poverty and homelessness and creating opportunity for everyone.

Leaders will announce the Dorothy Day Center Task Force, a partnership between the city of St. Paul, the business and philanthropic community, Catholic Charities, and other advocates that will examine the growing needs of the St. Paul community. The task force will evaluate and recommend a new approach that links short-term, emergency support to long-term, permanent solutions and real pathways out of poverty.

The task force will approach this work with both head and heart — looking to proven, innovative approaches that deliver results while remembering that in times of crisis, dignity and hope for those most in need are as important as a place to lay their heads.

Harking back to the birth of the Dorothy Day Center in 1981, the Dorothy Day Center Task Force invites business, government, faith and neighborhood leaders to identify the best way for the center to continue to serve and support our neighbors in need. We on the task force commit to the community that we will work with the sense of urgency that this situation demands, and that we will share information as we go forward.

Our call to the community is to join us in this process. The strength of St. Paul and the broader Twin Cities region is defined not only by thriving businesses, green space, transit, arts and more — it is also defined by what we do to take care of our neighbors who need us most.

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Chris Coleman is mayor of St. Paul. Matt Kramer is president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. Carleen Rhodes is president and CEO of the St. Paul Foundation.

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