At State Capitol, a billion-dollar discipline won't house the homeless

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2014 - 6:17 PM

The cap on state bonding (in a time of low interest rates, at that) leaves needs unfilled.

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George Smith was among the people staying at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul in May 2013. He and his wife had lost their housing after health problems.

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From the always-buzzing Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul, a billion dollars looks like both a lot of money and too little.

A cool billion is an unimaginably royal sum to the 250 people who crowd into the Catholic Charities service center each night to sleep on thin floor mats spaced a foot apart from one another — not to mention the growing number who are turned away for lack of space.

Yet as a cap on new state bonded indebtedness for the 2013-14 lawmaking cycle, $1 billion isn’t much. About $150 million of that total was already authorized last year. That leaves $850 million — and at that size, even a friend of the homeless as true as House capital investment chair Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, could not find room in her bill for all of Dorothy Day’s much-needed expansion.

Dorothy Day is far from alone in singing the left-out blues as this year’s bonding debate proceeds. Gov. Mark Dayton says he regretfully turned down requests for $2 billion in “seriously and urgently needed projects” around the state. Everything from higher-ed building upkeep to overdue bridge replacements (are those still chilling words in these parts?) to a water pipeline in aquifer-depleted southwestern Minnesota are being shortchanged.

But Dorothy Day is a good place to ponder the high cost of being too cheap. Its request for state help isn’t just about putting more mats on the floor each night, though more are needed, Catholic Charities officials say. It’s also about boosting the center’s capacity to help people get off those mats and into permanent housing and contributing citizenship — and thereby save taxpayers money in the long term.

It’s about finally meeting a state goal set 10 years ago by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty: ending chronic homelessness.

It’s about people like Gary Smith, a well-spoken 69-year-old veteran originally from New York. He showed up at Dorothy Day nearly four years ago, suffering from what was likely depression and other mental and physical maladies. “I had despair, and wasn’t taking my meds,” he explained.

When I met him last week, Smith couldn’t say enough good about the home he found at Dorothy Day, even though for years, his bed was a floor mat. “I think it’s miraculous that such a place exists at all,” he said.

With the center’s help, eventually he was diagnosed and is now being treated for kidney disease. He’s found help in obtaining veterans’ benefits, Social Security and Medicare. Eventually, he moved to a tiny “transitional” room in Mary Hall, a Catholic Charities building near Dorothy Day.

If the facility’s expansion plans proceed, he stands to be among the new facility’s permanent residents in one-room apartments, qualifying because he needs its supportive health and counseling services. “I’m really looking forward to that,” he says.

The Dorothy Day population is young and old, male and female. But program manager Gerry Lauer says Smith typifies a growing share of the steadily growing line at the corner of Old Sixth and Main. Dorothy Day’s clientele is older and sicker than it used to be. Many need more of the daytime drop-in services that the Dorothy Day Center was originally built 33 years ago to provide.

But those services had to take a back seat as the wave of homelessness reached crisis proportions during the two recessions of the 2000s. Instead of being provided during normal business hours, service offices are open only a few hours per day as the cramped facility transforms itself every few hours from drop-in center to community cafeteria to overnight shelter.

Without a way to separate services from eating and sleeping space, there’s not enough chance to work with clients to move them toward health and homes, Lauer said. Without expanding, there aren’t enough of the kind of homes that they need — affordable single-occupancy units with supportive services on hand.

Supportive housing is nicely funded in the House bonding bill. It includes a generous $100 million in grant money, for which Dorothy Day plans to apply for $17 million. (Dayton’s bid contained only half as much.) But the House bill and Dayton’s proposal do not include the $18 million that St. Paul and Catholic Charities also seek for more and better emergency shelter space.

Catholic Charities officials say that without it, the number of shelter seekers turned away each night likely will grow. The wait for services will grow. And the homeless population in St. Paul will grow, because the first step in a multistep program proven to end homelessness won’t be big or sturdy enough.

Proven? In Minneapolis, a Catholic Charities facility called Higher Ground, open since 2012, is doing precisely what Dorothy Day proposes in St. Paul. In its first year, shelter stays dropped by more than a third, and 95 clients moved into permanent housing.

Surely a project this deserving can fit in an $850 million bonding bill, you say? Second-guessing bonding bill priorities is a favorite Capitol game. Before you presume to play, you need to know the story behind all of the nearly 150 projects included in such a bill, and many more left out.

You must remember that the state has particular stewardship duties to institutions of its own making. That’s why the Bell Museum of Natural History is making the cut in the House. It’s on the University of Minnesota campus, but it’s been a creature of the state — and a woefully underfunded one — since 1872.

You need to know that some of the projects ahead of Dorothy Day have been in the state’s bonding queue for eight years. First-time pleaders are often advised to come again.

Is that the advice Minnesotans want to give sick people who sleep night after night on a floor mat, and are sometimes turned away for lack of space? Or would Minnesotans rather tell legislators that now, while interest rates are still low, is a fine time for a bonding bill bigger than $850 million?

Hausman says she would happily make it bigger. But she needs eight Republican votes in the House to meet bonding’s supermajority threshold. In the Senate — whose bill is due for release this week — two GOP votes are required. And GOP leaders reiterated last week that their caucus members won’t vote for a bonding bill that breaks through the artificial $1 billion ceiling for the two-year cycle that they set last year.

A billion dollars looked like a big bonding total 20 years ago. I’d invite legislators to stand in the dinner queue in a cold rain outside Dorothy Day and see how it looks today.

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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  • The Dorothy Day Center transforms itself every few hours from a drop-in center to a community cafeteria to an overnight shelter.

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