Dorothy Day shelter marks 31st anniversary with ‘mixed emotions’

What does it mean to "commemorate" the 31st anniversary of a homeless shelter?

That's the question the staff at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul have been trying to answer. When the homeless shelter opened in 1981, organizers thought homelessness was a temporary problem in the Twin Cities. They were wrong.

(Dorothy Day Center, St. Paul, MPR Photo/Tim Nelson)

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Every night, about two hundred people sleep on mats on the shelter floor. Another 42 people sleep upstairs in bunk beds in the shelter's women's program. Demand has increased so dramatically that Catholic Charities, which operates the Dorothy Day Center, converted an unused office building into an overflow shelter two years ago. The overflow shelter, which can fit up to 50 people each night, sits next to the main shelter and is only open during the winter months. It closed on Monday.

There isn't any funding to keep the overflow shelter open, said Dorothy Day Center director Gerry Lauer. (Catholic Charities received about $50,000 to fund the shelter this winter from the city of St. Paul, Ramsey County, and community members.) Also, he said, if the shelter stayed open year-round, it would need to undergo $650,000 worth of renovations to meet building code regulations.

That means the main Dorothy Day shelter will probably have to start turning people away this month, Lauer said. Last year, during the months the overflow shelter was closed, Dorothy Day turned away 218 people because it didn't have enough room. Shelter employees also counted 1,164 people from July to December who were sleeping on the grass and concrete outside of the shelter or in a car parked nearby when the shelter was full.

Many of the people sleeping right outside the shelter are easy targets for people looking for someone to rob, Lauer said. Last summer, he said, police responded to several stabbings outside the shelter.

Catholic Charities hopes to call attention to these problems at a community breakfast to "commemorate" the shelter's 31st anniversary, Lauer said.

The event, he said, "is being held with mixed emotions."

In a way, it's a recognition of the failure to end homelessness, but it's also important to recognize the efforts of community members, volunteers, employees, and others, he said.

"By no means is it a celebration," Lauer said. "This is not where we thought we'd be 31 years ago."

The community breakfast will be held at the Dorothy Day Center, at 183 Old 6th St. West, from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. May 2.