Ramsey County's only day shelter for homeless families suddenly faced an emergency crisis of its own.
After nearly two decades, the Family Place day center in downtown St. Paul abruptly closed at the end of August, citing lack of funding.
"It's a safe haven. We really need this," said Denise Taylor, 58, who has spent days at the center since June with her 11-year-old granddaughter. "We didn't know where we were going to go."
Then leaders from the nonprofit Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, rushed in with less than two weeks' notice to take over. The renamed Project Home Day Center opened on Sept. 1.
Ramsey County provided $175,000 in funding for the next three months to prevent displacing the 40 people the center serves each day with free meals, showers, lockers and a safe space.
"The day center is just critical for them to move forward," said Randi Roth, executive director of Interfaith Action.
It's part of a growing number of resources to address homelessness in Ramsey County. Nearby, Catholic Charities will open the second phase of a new $100 million Dorothy Day Place campus in the coming weeks. Its Higher Ground St. Paul, which opened in 2017, houses nearly 500 people, and the second phase includes 177 apartments, a health clinic, mental health services, a career center and a veterans' resource hub.
Ramsey County also opened a 64-bed overflow homeless shelter earlier this year and is working with other metro counties to come up with a regional approach to addressing homelessness.
"The need is really high," said Max Holdhusen, the interim manager of the county's new housing and stability office, adding that more than 50 families are on a waiting list for a bed.
This year, Minnesota's homeless population reached a record high number of 10,233, rising 10% since 2015, according to Wilder Research, the research arm of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.
'We ran out of money'
The Family Place had long been the only day center in Ramsey County, though in Maplewood, the Family Service Center provides both day and overnight space.
The Family Place executive director, Margaret Lovejoy, started the nonprofit 18 years ago, but she said it faced funding issues over the years; in 2007, the nonprofit nearly closed after a $50,000 budget shortfall due to declining donations, federal aid and foundation grants. In 2017, the nonprofit reported to the Attorney General's Office, which regulates charities in the state, that it had ended the year with a $236,000 deficit.
Lovejoy said she cut staff in half to six employees, but the nonprofit still struggled financially, she said, citing tax law changes, decreasing foundation money and individual donations. Then Ramsey County, which has funded the Family Place since 2001, didn't renew its contract when it ended in July.
"We couldn't get financial backing from the county," Lovejoy said. "We ran out of money. If I had the money, I would have stayed in business."
She said it was a difficult decision to close the center, and its board will decide whether to dissolve the nonprofit.
"I was surprised," Jenny Stevens, a board member and assistant director of the Family Place, said of the closure, "but I was relieved that Interfaith Action came in."
Ramsey County's funding for Interfaith Action's day shelter runs through Dec. 15. In October, the county will consider bids for providing services after Dec. 15.
"I think it's going to be a really successful model of linking families," Holdhusen said of Interfaith Action.
From nights to days
Interfaith Action, a small nonprofit with 32 staff members and a $2 million annual budget, has never operated a day center before. For more than two decades, the nonprofit has coordinated overnight emergency shelter beds, rotating each month among 24 churches and synagogues to set up 40 beds in church classrooms and community spaces.
While people wait weeks for a shelter bed to open up, they often sleep on family or friends' couches, in vehicles or outside. After families get a shelter bed, buses take them to the day center during the day, where children can pick up school buses.
Project Home Day Center kept the same location where the Family Place had been for years, leasing space at First Baptist Church in St. Paul, and added a children's area and a new caseworker who helps families find housing and jobs.
Inside a community room, signs plastered on the walls tout phrases like "you are not alone" and "you are not invisible." Sara Liegl, the cheery director of Project Home, showed no signs of fatigue despite waking up at 3 a.m. to help one of the residents. She greeted each person, many of whom are single parents struggling to afford market-rate apartments.
"I could've been on the street," said Consonjua Napier, 47, who lived with family as she waited three weeks for shelter beds to become available for her and her two teenage boys. "I'm glad they're here."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141