Civic leaders, including Mayor Chris Coleman, on Friday morning launched a campaign to build three new facilities to replace St. Paul's aging and overcrowded Dorothy Day Center for the homeless.
The project, expected to cost $64 million, emerged out of recommendations from a mayoral task force to broaden and enhance the services provided by Dorothy Day, which began as a drop-in center more than 30 years ago and whose expanding mission since has overtaken its capacity at its downtown St. Paul location.
The new facilities — which would include a shelter, transitional and permanent housing, and a resource center for the poor and homeless — will provide "a gigantic leap forward … the best of the city of St. Paul," Coleman said at the announcement at Dorothy Day.
Catholic Charities CEO Tim Marx called it "a new day for Dorothy Day."
The announcement matched the spirit of a plan announced Thursday by state leaders to prevent and end homelessness statewide. That plan proposes more funding for affordable and supportive housing and rental assistance, more effective jobs programs and better coordination of social services.
Dollar figures haven't yet been assigned to much of the plan, although there is support for $100 million in housing infrastructure bonds in the coming legislative session — $17 million of which Catholic Charities hopes to use for the first phase of its Dorothy Day plan, along with $22 million in general obligation bonds that St. Paul hopes to get from the state.
The first phase, costing an estimated $39 million, would include two buildings across Interstate 94 from downtown St. Paul's northeast quadrant. One would be a facility offering a range of housing options (from shelter to apartments) for 470 people, similar to Catholic Charities' innovative Higher Ground building in Minneapolis; the other would be an adjacent Connection Center offering services such as computer labs, job referrals, meals and housing resources.
The second phase of the project, tagged at $24 million, would build permanent housing to replace and supplement deteriorating units in the downtown core. The preferred site would be near the current Dorothy Day Center, off W. 7th Street near the Xcel arena.
"We want to create a new dynamic where people are able to have much better space, be connected to the services they need and have access to the downtown core and elsewhere," Marx said.
If state funding is obtained next year, he said, the first phase of the project could open as early as 2016. "Our development team says that may not be realistic, but we are pushing everyone hard because of the untenable situation at Dorothy Day," Marx said.
Dorothy Day opened in 1981 as a drop-in center for meals and services, but by 2001 it had also become a shelter used year-round. Three years ago it ran out of space for the homeless, forcing a few dozen men to stay next door in a former funeral home. It serves more than 6,000 people annually.
For Marx, the critical moment came in the summer of 2011, when for the first time the overcrowded facility had to turn people away. "When that happened, we knew there was an urgent situation and we had to call ourselves and the entire community to action," he said.
That led to formation of the task force drawn from the business, faith, government and nonprofit sectors, and chaired by St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer and Minnesota Community Foundation President Carleen Rhodes.
Kramer said the northeast location for the Higher Ground-style facility and the Connection Center was chosen for its proximity to Ramsey County's new chemical and mental health center, the city/county law enforcement complex, transit and the Union Gospel Mission just across the freeway.
The homeless and those getting services at Dorothy Day, Coleman added, "felt like they were on display there and they were uncomfortable with that location. We want to make it very clear that we aren't trying to stuff our homeless in the corner somewhere, but do what is in the best interests of the clients that we're serving."
Another consideration was the commercial development potential of the Dorothy Day site, although Coleman dismissed that as a motivating factor for choosing a different location. "That was not part of the conversation," he said.
At the same time, Kramer said, the permanent housing proposed for the current site will maintain Dorothy Day's longtime presence in downtown and also give Catholic Charities a highly visible branding location.
Kramer said he's confident the project will win backing from the business community. "We're going to create a solution that's more dignified and that provides a higher degree of service to the customers," he said.