An emergency winter shelter for the homeless in downtown St. Paul will open earlier this year and stay open later than it did last year, as health officials and nonprofits race to handle a rising tide of homelessness.
The shelter, first used by Ramsey County and St. Paul last year, will open Thursday and remain open through the end of April, two months longer than last winter. It will house more people each night, up to 64, and stay open two hours longer in the morning to help the homeless find long-term housing or navigate restrictions at other shelters, health officials said.
With the demand for shelter space growing, there was a clear need to bring back the emergency shelter for another winter, said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough.
“It continues to be an incredibly difficult environment for people with low incomes to find stable, affordable housing,” he said.
The shelter, which served 700 people last winter, will occupy the lower level of the county’s Government Center East building, 160 E. Kellogg Blvd. It will be staffed and managed by Catholic Charities, which runs some of the largest homeless shelters in the metro area.
Operating costs for the shelter are expected to reach $400,000 and will be covered by St. Paul, Ramsey County and several “philanthropic partners,” according to a county statement.
It’s unclear what the shelter will mean for a nearby homeless encampment of about 30 men and women who have been living out of tents on a hill above Interstate 35E.
The city and the county health department have been monitoring the camp weekly since spring, cleaning trash, leftover food and anything that might pose a health risk on the state-owned site.
With the downtown shelter opening this week, officials with the city, county and state will reevaluate the encampment, said Ricardo Cervantes, director of St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections.
“Our goal hasn’t changed: to provide options for folks seeking shelter,” Cervantes said. “Ideally, we’d like to move them into more permanent housing. With colder temperatures and once the snow starts blowing, we’ll be reassessing what the needs are for who remains and how to provide what they need.”
The city has no plans to clear the camp, he said. The objective is “to make sure folks are finding a path forward,” he said. “If we can find other opportunities or options, then that’s what we’ll try to do.”
The St. Paul encampment is much smaller than the one that grew to several hundred people around the same time in south Minneapolis along Hiawatha Avenue. The two camps together are larger and more visible than has been seen before in the metro area, but encampments here are hardly new, officials said.
Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, with 320 rooms, has been full almost every night this fall. Demand for shelter space has climbed by about 40 percent over the last four years, said Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities. With the center full, people have started to camp in its courtyard, he said.
And the demand will only get worse as temperatures fall.
“We know that we must act now for the safety of our neighbors who are living without permanent, stable housing,” Marx said. Any long-term fix must start with the creation of more affordable housing, he said.
“It is critically important that we not let these temporary solutions turn into permanent ones,” Marx said.