Just in time for the height of winter, a former south Minneapolis orphanage is opening its doors to a growing number of homeless women.

In its first ever female-only homeless shelter, the Salvation Army is temporarily leasing space at the former St. Joseph's Home for Children for up to 30 women while the nonprofit looks for a permanent emergency shelter site in north Minneapolis. The program is almost entirely funded by Hennepin County, which planned to open a women's shelter in the Willard-Hay neighborhood. But that plan was scrapped last fall because of concerns from neighbors.

"The need is always great and greatest in the winter," said Trish Thacker, executive director of the Salvation Army's Harbor Light Center downtown, which houses women and men. "The goal is to help people be as stable as possible before they move into [permanent] housing."

Minnesota has reported record homelessness in recent years, in part from a shortage of affordable housing. The pandemic and economic crisis have made homelessness more visible through sprawling encampments.

The Salvation Army is serving 250 more people a year than before the pandemic. At Harbor Light, a majority are single men, but the facility also has 40 beds for women, which are usually full, Thacker said. Some women are concerned about staying on the same site as men. "A lot of women experiencing homelessness also experienced violence or abuse in other forms," she added.

Starting last month, 10 women moved into St. Joe's, owned by Catholic Charities. They vary in age and will receive case management, mental and chemical health services.

"The campus is quiet," Thacker added. "It's easy to feel at ease."

An additional 20 beds will be added by February, Thacker said. The nonprofit and Hennepin County hope to find a permanent North Side site for at least 50 women, she said. The county is paying for most of the temporary program — $1.5 million, part of the rising cost of homelessness.

For more than a century, St. Joe's housed thousands of children. Catholic Charities announced last year it would close the program as the child welfare system shifted children into homes. Hope Street, an emergency shelter and transitional housing for young adults, still operates there.

Before the Salvation Army's program moves, Catholic Charities' leaders will evaluate the future of its 12-acre parcel near E. 46th Street and Chicago Avenue and seek community input. It's too soon to say if the site could be redeveloped.

"It really has been a collaborative effort. We're all trying to use our resources for the greater good," Thacker said. "No single organization can solve [homelessness] by itself."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated Catholic Charities’ timeline for evaluating the site’s future.