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Officials plan more shelters to respond to increase in homelessness

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Several emergency homeless shelters could open in the next few weeks in St. Paul, as shelter providers and local officials mount a response to the dramatic increase in the number of homeless adults seeking shelter.

The plans could include using a St. Paul fire station or another city building to serve as a temporary overflow shelter, said Joe Collins, a program coordinator with the city's Planning and Economic Development department. He said that St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman plans to meet with county officials Friday to discuss the issue.

On Thursday, Collins met with about a dozen social service providers and a representative from the St. Paul police department to review homeless shelter options.

At the meeting, providers said the city's adult shelters have been running out of room for months, as the recession and state budget cuts push more people into homelessness, putting strain on an already crowded shelter system.

Social service providers have already responded by expanding one shelter and considering whether to open another. Providers and city officials say they would prefer to work with existing social service agencies and avoid opening a shelter in a city building, if possible, due to funding and staffing concerns.

Last week, the Union Gospel Mission converted its chapel into a temporary shelter to house up to 25 men. The agency's 120 emergency shelter beds have been full for months. Before the chapel was opened, the shelter had to turn away about 15 people every night.

At Thursday's meeting, Catholic Charities officials discussed using an office building next to the Dorothy Day Center to provide temporary shelter. The office, owned by Catholic Charities, has a conference room that could fit up to 30 people.

"It would be very convenient for us and our clients," said Tracy Berglund, the director of housing and emergency services at Catholic Charities. "But I'm quite frankly hoping that we don't need to use it."

The Dorothy Day shelter cannot hold more than 250 people, providers said. In recent weeks, the number of guests has fluctuated from about 212 to 247 a night and the space between the sleeping mats has shrunk to six inches.

Although the shelter has seen a slight dip in the number of guests in the last week, providers say a temporary decrease is typical during the holiday season.

"I'm more concerned as we approach mid-January," said Gerry Lauer, program director at Dorothy Day. "Right now, it's kind of a guessing game."

Shelter providers plan to track shelter usage closely in the next few weeks to determine the best course of action and will continue to meet regularly.

Collins said he plans to work with city council members and the mayor's office to explore funding options to convert a city facility into an overflow shelter.

"This is really a budget issue," Collins said. "Can you come up with the money? That's the real question."

Shelter providers also discussed winter weather rules at this week's meeting. Both Union Gospel Mission and the Dorothy Day Center plan to stay open during the day if the temperature or the wind chill drops below zero degrees.