Antonio Kelly peered into sunny new rooms that will soon be buzzing with barbers, mental health counselors and job trainers — all in the same building as his new apartment.
"It's big," said Kelly, 42, who's been homeless for three years and moved into his own apartment at the Dorothy Day Residence last month. "I have somewhere to lay my head."
Construction crews are now wrapping up work on the second and final building of the new Dorothy Day Place campus in downtown St. Paul before Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis officially opens it next week. Already, about 100 residents have moved into the six-story building that has 177 affordable apartments and a new resource center that will be a one-stop shop for career training, a dental clinic, a hair salon and other services.
"That is a dream come true for them and for us," said Catholic Charities CEO Tim Marx. "We have a dire crisis in affordable housing."
The $100 million project — the largest public-private partnership of its kind in Minnesota history — is the latest addition in the Twin Cities to tackle the shortage in affordable housing.
Higher Ground St. Paul, which opened in 2017 across the street and has 356 emergency shelter beds and 193 permanent housing units, is at capacity. By the end of the year, Marx said, the new Dorothy Day Residence will also have a waiting list.
On Wednesday, a few people stashed blankets and luggage outside Higher Ground as they waited for a bed. The buildings, near the Xcel Energy Center, aren't far from where a homeless encampment appeared last year.
"Three years ago, we wouldn't have predicted this," Marx said of the growing need for shelters and housing. "It clearly is not enough."
Across the Twin Cities, low apartment vacancy rates, rising rents and affordable apartments converted into luxury units are leaving low-income people struggling to find a home. Homelessness has reached a record high, rising 10% since 2015 to 10,233 people, according to a report released earlier this year by Wilder Research. While the number of homeless families is declining, the number of homeless adults ages 25 to 54 rose 20%. The demographic with the biggest increase: adults age 55 and older.
"The challenge we're confronting is there is more need than we anticipated," Marx said.
The Dorothy Day Residence, built on the site of the former emergency shelter demolished in 2017, and Higher Ground St. Paul, are the largest structures they could build on the site, Marx said. It's a vast improvement from what was there before: a crowded emergency shelter with room for 250 people sleeping on floor mats while neighboring Mary Hall had 75 permanent units.
Now, the two buildings offer more "dignified" options, with emergency shelter bunk beds for 356 people and permanent housing for 370 people, green spaces with gardens and trees, lots of windows for natural light and even wellness and meditation rooms.
Marx said broader efforts are needed to increase and keep affordable housing, prevent eviction and invest in workforce training and mental health services.
"The economy has grown significantly and improved, but it hasn't grown and improved for everybody, particularly at the low-wage level or those who are very poor, while housing prices have increased," Marx said. "And we have to have strategies in place to address that mismatch."
The Metropolitan Council projects there will be a need for an additional 39,700 affordable housing units from 2021 to 2030.
Other nonprofits are trying to respond to that. St. Paul-based Commonbond Communities recently closed on four new properties — from Stonehouse Square Apartments in northeast Minneapolis to buildings in Eden Prairie, Shakopee and Hastings — that will add 121 affordable units and preserve 101 existing affordable apartments. In Minneapolis' North Loop, Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative opened a new apartment building for men formerly incarcerated.
Catholic Charities is also sharpening its focus, announcing last year that the organization was dropping its refugee resettlement and adoption programs and diving deeper into its other work, particularly programs helping the homeless and at-risk children.
Fifteen of the units at the Dorothy Day Residence are dedicated for veterans and 11 are for homeless young adults ages 18-24.
The building includes free meals, laundry and the resource center called the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation St. Paul Opportunity Center. Staff from Ramsey County and about a dozen organizations will work there. It's modeled after Catholic Charities' Higher Ground in Minneapolis that opened in 2012.
The campus was funded by a $40 million fundraiser — $5 million from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, the Best Buy founder's charity arm, was the biggest donation — and $60 million from the state, Ramsey County, city of St. Paul, Met Council and federal tax credits for capital funding.
"Every Minnesotan deserves a safe place to call home," Gov. Tim Walz said in a statement. "Dorothy Day Place is a prime example of the innovation and compassion that is quintessentially Minnesotan, and this new campus will boost its efforts to combat homelessness in our state."
Kelly said he bounced from couch to couch before getting help from Catholic Charities. Now, he's just grateful for his own room and the help to get him back on his feet.
"I couldn't stop smiling," he said of moving into his new apartment. "It keeps you out of the cold."