Homeless shelters running out of room

Dorothy Day Center
The Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul serves people who are homeless. It's nearing its capacity of 250 adults who can sleep there each night.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Homeless shelters for adults in St. Paul are running out of room, while providers and city officials work to open an overflow shelter as soon as possible before the temperature drops.

"We're in an emergency mode," said Nick Gisi, director of men's programs at Union Gospel Mission. "We can't just have these people running around in the cold freezing to death. We need to take care of them."

Providers say that the economic downturn and state budget cuts have pushed more people into homelessness, putting strain on shelters that have already been crowded for years.

"The truth of the matter is we were full long before the recession started, and we are beyond full at this point," said Rebecca Lentz, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities.

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The nonprofit runs several Twin Cities shelters, including the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St. Paul.

City officials and shelter providers say they are considering using a city facility as an overflow shelter, and expect to make a final decision within the next several weeks. Across the river, Minneapolis providers have begun to discuss similar measures.

"We were full long before the recession started, and we are beyond full at this point."

In St. Paul, the Union Gospel Mission's 120 emergency shelter beds have been full for weeks. The shelter turns away about 15 people a night.

Union Gospel Mission plans to convert its chapel into a temporary shelter to house up to 50 more men, while working with the city to locate other possible sites.

At the Dorothy Day Center, the space between the sleeping mats has shrunk to six inches, as workers struggle to squeeze in more people.

"The mats are literally so close together that staff cannot get from the front of the room to the back of the room without having to wake people," Lentz said.

The shelter cannot hold more than 250 people. On Thursday night, 247 men and women slept there.

Shelter providers say the high numbers are particularly alarming because the weather has been relatively mild. When winter arrives, providers expect the numbers will far exceed the current resources of area shelters.

Many homeless advocates also expect more people will become homeless because of Governor Tim Pawlenty's decision to unallot funding for emergency general assistance, starting Nov. 1.

The program had provided emergency payments for rent and utilities. Last year, over 11,000 households accessed funding, mostly to avoid evictions, move from a homeless shelter into an apartment, or prevent utility shut-offs.

Although federal stimulus money will provide some assistance, homeless advocates say it will not be enough to prevent more people from losing their housing.

"We anticipate that within 60 to 90 days of that program ending, we will see more people sleeping on the street," Lentz said.

Tracy Berglund, the director of housing and emergency services at Catholic Charities, said that the situation demonstrates the importance of long-term funding to end homelessness.

"I think we'll continue to focus on the solution, while realizing that if it's not moving quickly enough, we need to do a band-aid measure," Berglund said. "But shelter clearly isn't the solution."