A traveling emergency shelter organized at several Dakota County churches helped nearly three dozen homeless people survive a week of dangerous subzero temperatures in December, but its closing exposes the need for more permanent shelter in the south metro, advocates and county workers say.

“We basically had babies on the street with nowhere to go, and that couldn’t happen,” said Andrea Roske-Metcalfe, an associate pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley who helped bring the shelter to her church.

After rotating four-day stints at Grace, Prince of Peace in Burnsville and Spirit of Life in Apple Valley from Dec. 16-26, the shelter has stopped operating, leaving many homeless to return to sleeping in cars, sitting up all night in restaurants or riding light rail.

A coalition of Dakota County churches had been meeting for over a year to discuss solutions to local homelessness. When the frigid weather prompted county officials to ask the community for immediate help, Roske-Metcalfe said, several churches stepped up.

Church staff members had never run a temporary shelter, but they got to work, calling restaurants for food donations and volunteers to provide supplies. The county donated $3,000 and covered overnight staffing. Beds came from a Minneapolis nonprofit.

“Given the short notice, I’m shocked at how well it went,” Roske-Metcalfe said. “It was a pretty wonderful experience.”

The pop-up shelter housed 18 to 24 people those first nights, including people who worked nearby. Some youth sought shelter, but it also served older adults who weren’t connected with social services and had been living outside awhile, said Madeline Kastler, the county’s housing manager.

Corina Morris, 23, moved with the shelter project as it passed from church to church, grateful for a warm place to sleep with her 8-month-old son, Benjamin, and fiancé, Zach Isle, 26.

Morris, of Apple Valley, had been couch hopping with friends for a year and a half since she and Isle lost their apartment. Sometimes Isle, who works repairing cellphone towers, puts Morris and the baby up in a hotel when nothing else is available. Isle sleeps in his car when there’s limited space, he said.

The pair exhausted their options in mid-December, so the shelter was a lifesaver.

“We can be a family again,” Morris said as she and Isle shared mashed potatoes and ham. “Not separated.”

A permanent solution

With the cold spell over, the church coalition and county staff are refocusing on a larger objective: a more permanent shelter.

“There’s a need, generally, for more emergency shelter in Dakota County,” Kastler said.

Dakota County has a homeless shelter for families — Dakota Woodlands — in Eagan, and a men’s shelter in Hastings, but no specialized shelter for youth, and limited resources for single women, Kastler said.

It’s hard to say whether low rental vacancy rates and resulting higher rents have led to more homelessness or if the county is finding more homeless people because it’s paying closer attention to the problem, Kastler said.

A GoFundMe page was started to raise $50,000 for the temporary shelter. It raised $13,230 as of Wednesday, but that’s a fraction of a permanent shelter’s cost. A building alone could cost millions.

Another major expense is providing professional staff at shelters, whether temporary or long term, said Monica Nilsson, who was hired by the church coalition to coordinate the pop-up shelter.

Residents could access a nurse, a mental health professional and a housing specialist Tuesday before the shelter closed.

Then there’s the awareness issue, Nilsson said.

Many people still doubt homelessness exists in suburbs because they don’t see panhandlers on street corners like in the central cities. Suburban homeless often stay out of sight. The county estimated its homeless population at 63 people in January 2016, based on the number of people county workers found living outside, Nilsson said.

While building and staffing another Dakota County shelter is a far-off goal, the temporary shelter’s success was motivating, Roske-Metcalfe said: “It may turn out to be the kick in the ass that we needed.”