Dorothy Day Center looks for new approach to aid homeless

Virgil Anderson
Virgil Anderson, 61, sits on his mat at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, Minn. As many as 250 people sleep at the homeless shelter each night, most of them on mats on the floor.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

In a packed room at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul earlier this week, 100 people tried to get a good night's sleep on mats -- each just inches from the next. Most slept in their clothes, their belongings stashed nearby. The lights were out, but it was not quiet.

Douglas Forsberg, 64, has slept on this floor most every night for four years.

"It's not comfortable, you have no privacy," Forsberg said. "But it beats sleeping outside. It beats sleeping, you know, under a bridge."

That's not good enough, said Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which runs the Dorothy Day Center.

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Overcrowded and unable to effectively serve its clients, the homeless shelter is badly in need of change, say city officials and center leaders.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has launched a task force to consider future possibilities and funding options.

"We simply can't house people as we are now in an undignified, inhumane way, and say we're just going to continue on, and do the same thing the next year," Marx said.

Dorothy Day Center
A homeless woman sits among the sleeping mats at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

It fact, the Dorothy Day Center was not intended to be a homeless shelter. When it opened 32 years ago in downtown St. Paul, the center was a place for people to get a cup of coffee and some food. Today, as many as 250 people a night sleep there, a growing number of them are seniors. Increasingly, people come through the door with mental health issues or physical disabilities.

It's become a place people go to just to survive another day, Marx said, rather than a place that helps people out of homelessness.

"Right now, unfortunately, we are doing too much of managing homelessness and managing crisis; just keeping people alive, rather than solving homelessness and solving poverty," he said.

The newly formed task force is charged with working out the future of the center. Moving the center to a new location is an option. Task force leaders won't talk about funding yet.

But there is new model for getting people out of homelessness, Marx said, and it is right across the river in Minneapolis. Task force leaders said they may look to that facility, Higher Ground, as they consider a new approach for Dorothy Day.

Higher Ground is a seven-story building that has a shelter on the first two floors and permanent housing on the other five floors. About a year ago, Catholic Charities closed a Minneapolis shelter similar to Dorothy Day and replaced it with Higher Ground at a cost of $18 million to build. Most of the money came from the state, county, city, and Catholic Charities.

It's nothing like the shelters with mats on the floor, said John Petroskas, a tenant services coordinator at Higher Ground.

Higher Ground
Higher Ground, a shelter and housing program in Minneapolis, charges residents $7 a night for a bunk bed, locker, shower, and access to employment resources. The money guests pay for shelter is held to be used as rental deposits when they move into permanent housing.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

"We have a lot more space, a lot more light. And we have bunks," Petroskas said.

Higher Ground is not quite a year old, but housing advocates say early signs suggest it is moving people out of homelessness.

On the second floor, clients pay $7 a night for a bed in what looks like a large dormitory. Clients build up rental history -- which many don't have -- and the shelter returns their money to use for a damage deposit when they are able to obtain more a permanent residence. There's a lounge, a computer lab. The men also get lockers, and that really matters, Petroskas said.

"Looking homeless is a huge disadvantage to finding work," he said. "If you don't have to carry a huge bag of your stuff, more likely you'll be able to find a job."

Higher Ground
The top floor of Higher Ground has 11 efficiency apartments, each with its own kitchen and bathroom. They are available to people who are experiencing long-term homelessness and have a disability.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

But the biggest difference for clients at Higher Ground, Petroskas said, may be knowing that there is permanent housing above them. That's where there are small rooms with shared kitchens, and even some efficiencies. That housing is reserved exclusively for people who have been homeless for a long time and have disabilities. But having the different options under one roof gives people hope, Petroskas said.

"The transition from being homeless and living in a homeless shelter to having a place to live is an easier one for some of our guests to make if it just requires getting on an elevator and going from the shelter to the new place they're going to live," he said.

Arnold Mercier hopes to make that transition someday. He's 50 years old, and has been homeless on and off for ten years. He said staying at Higher Ground has helped him.

"It just keeps your spirits up. You know you can come back here," Mercier said. "I have a safe, secure place. My stuff is secure. It's just peace of mind."

When he talks about the future, he talks about moving to the top floor of Higher Ground.

"It actually gives you that hope, that bright outlook - that, 'hey, I can get upstairs, I can get my own place,'" Mercier said.

"When I find a permanent home, I'm going to appreciate that even more."