Twin Cities families in need of a temporary place to stay have found a safe, warm refuge in a surprising place: a former Catholic convent in St. Paul.

Before COVID-19, homeless families seeking help from Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul would sprawl out on cots clustered in church classrooms or empty rooms of synagogues, separated often only by a cardboard barrier. When the pandemic hit in 2020, that was no longer safe, so the nonprofit's leaders scrambled to find a new option to address Minnesota's severe shortage of affordable housing.

Enter the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

The 120 nuns in the Highland Park neighborhood grabbed their iPads and computers and logged into Zoom to mull the possibility of leasing their Provincial House — a four-story, 94-year-old building that once held offices and the women's residences. For nearly a decade, the building sat largely empty after Presbyterian Homes & Services opened Carondelet Village on the sisters' 9-acre campus off Randolph Avenue. The sisters reached a quick consensus.

"Our mission is to be always moving toward love of God and love of neighbor without distinction," said Sister Cathy Steffens, adding that the community was founded in the 17th century to meet the needs of the time. "All of the sisters just felt that this was, at this particular time in history, what we're called to do."

For more than 20 years, Interfaith Action's Project Home program has had no building of its own. Each month, the nonprofit would set up 40 emergency beds between two sites, rotating among 24 churches, synagogues and a school.

"The sisters said there's room at the inn," said Randi Roth, executive director of Interfaith Action. "It's amazing what the sisters have done to open up this beautiful facility to meet this really important need. It's what faith is all about."

Before the city signed off on the concept, virtual town hall meetings drew nearly 500 residents — the most well-attended meetings in the history of the county, Roth said. To her surprise, neighbors in the largely affluent neighborhood gave resounding approval.

"It was like watching 'It's a Wonderful Life.' It was just so heartening," Roth said.

Ramsey County approved $900,000 to fund the project and, last March, 20 families moved into the former convent.

Creating a new home

Like nonprofits and counties across Minnesota, Interfaith Action moved homeless families into St. Paul hotels temporarily when the pandemic first hit. Now, operating in the Provincial House is a drastic improvement from the floors of gyms and classrooms pre-pandemic. The building has 100 beds for up to 30 families — more than double what Interfaith Action could provide before the pandemic.

"If not for COVID, we wouldn't have done what we're doing, but we're learning from our families this is a much better scenario for them," said Sara Liegl, director of Project Home. "[For] a county our size, this is what we need."

Inside the historic brick building, families live in the sisters' former modest rooms in a dorm-style set-up, with shared bathrooms on each floor. A few rooms for large families offer private bathrooms. Residents get three meals a day and work with social workers to find jobs, track down permanent affordable housing and boost financial literacy, learning how to budget and increase savings. Interfaith Action also built a playground outside and renovated the commercial kitchen.

Most of the families have children under the age of 12 and most are people of color, who are disproportionately affected by poverty and homelessness. During the day, the long hallways are largely empty as kids are at school and parents are at work.

"Encampments are very visible. But people tend to forget about family homelessness," Liegl said. "It's a massive problem ... families shouldn't wait to get emergency support like this."

Before COVID, nearly 60 families on average were on the county's shelter wait list. During the pandemic, the county boosted funding for affordable housing and emergency shelters, increasing the number of shelter beds for families from 185 beds in 2019 to 245 beds now. But some families are still waiting for help, camping out in the cold in their cars or couch-hopping with friends or relatives.

At Project Home, families arrive, on average, with just $37. Many fell on hard times, unable to afford skyrocketing rents or grappling with lost wages after an illness led to unpaid time off, Liegl said. The average stay is about 83 days — double the pre-pandemic length, due to the increasing lack of affordable housing. Liegl added that about 70% of families go on to find permanent homes.

A unique partnership

In April, Project Home's lease at the Provincial House ends, but will likely be renewed month to month.

"It's neat to see the building used finally," said John Viktora-Croke, executive director of operations for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Roth is lobbying public officials to renew funding when it ends May 31. Interfaith Action plans to restart its former system post-COVID, rotating shelter beds at churches and synagogues each month, while also keeping Provincial House's shelter if it's funded — which would perhaps eliminate a wait list for homeless families.

Project Home costs $1.8 million a year to operate, Interfaith Action's biggest and most costly program. About half is funded from the county and the rest is backed by a mix of county, state and federal dollars, donations and grants. While that's more costly than the pre-COVID model, it's more than double the space and gives families private rooms with real beds, not cots. Roth hopes the better model helps prevent families from ending up homeless again.

"It is sort of a unique public-private partnership and faith partnership," Roth said. "Shelters should be in neighborhoods that we would want to live in. They should be in beautiful places with green spaces and playgrounds. If we all get in and roll up our sleeves and act on our values," Roth said, "we can really transform our community. Project Home is just a beautiful, inspiring example of that."