Dorothy Day Center's time may be up; new homeless facility, new location proposed

Virgil Anderson
Preparing for a night at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Julie Siple / MPR News file

The Dorothy Day Center was never meant to be a place where people sleep. The homeless shelter opened in downtown St. Paul in 1981 as a drop-in center, a place where people could a get cup of coffee and a roll. But now, up to 250 people cram into that building at night. They sleep on floor mats, each person just inches from the next.

That situation may be about to change.

A task force set up in May by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman lays out its plans today: Close the shelter and replace it with two new buildings in a different area of the city -- northeast of downtown, in a non-residential area.

Catholic Charities runs the Dorothy Day Center, and its CEO, Tim Marx, says change can't come soon enough for the facility that can no longer handle the needs of its visitors.

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

"It's chaotic, it's unsanitary, and it does not recognize a person's dignity," he said. "Too many people get stuck there. We can't meet individual client needs. It's overwhelmed."

Under the proposed plan, the new, main building would combine emergency shelter on the ground level with permanent housing on higher floors. It could house and shelter up to 470 people. It is modeled on Higher Ground in Minneapolis, which Marx says has been successful after about a year in operation. Nearby, a Connection Center would offer help with jobs, health care, and food.

Tentative plans put those facilities northeast of the downtown core, near the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center and within walking distance of the Union Gospel Mission's Men's Campus.

As for the current Dorothy Day site, the task force recommends affordable housing that may look like an apartment building on or near the site. That housing would include supportive services.

Matt Kramer co-chaired the task force, and heads the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. He says the primary goal of the planned project is to provide better help for the homeless. He also admits there are concerns about downtown visitors who drive into the city via Interstate 94 for major events at the Xcel Center including Minnesota Wild hockey games, and concerts staged by the likes of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus.

Matt Kramer
Matt Kramer, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, served as the co-chair of the Dorothy Day Center Task Force.
Julie Siple / MPR News

"Twenty-thousand people coming from all over the metropolitan area, and their first introduction -- the first introduction -- when they get off the highway to the city of St. Paul, because we haven't provided a place where people can congregate with dignity during the day, is people sitting on the sidewalk, people sitting on the curb, people laying in the grass," Kramer said. "And you say -- this is our capital city?"

Moving the Dorothy Day Center could be a chance to develop housing, and more, in an area that the city has long been interested in.

"It could be retail, businesses. If that's the case, that's tax-producing land," Kramer said.

But the commercial value of the property represents a challenge.

"It's prime real estate, and even though everybody knows we need affordable housing, it sometimes slides down on the priority list," said Liz Kuoppala, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. "I think it will also take persistent effort to make sure it really happens."

Liz Kuoppala
Liz Kuoppala is the executive director of Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.
Julie Siple / MPR News

Kuoppala hasn't seen all the details, but she also likes the plan for the shelter replacement on the edge of downtown, one that will provide both shelter on the first floor and permanent housing above.

"Some folks who have been homeless for decades can't even imagine what it's like to live someplace. So when they see their buddy who's been in the shelter with them for a while and now has a place just upstairs, it's a lot easier for some of these guys who might struggle with serious mental illness, untreated, to imagine themselves in that place," she said.

Catholic Charities says it surveyed clients at Dorothy Day, and some said they don't like being in such a prominent location either -- they feel on display.

Outside the Dorothy Day Center, Kenneth Davis, who says he's been homeless for about a year, said he would be happy to see the homeless shelter move.

"It's nasty" in the center, he said. "Move it! To a larger facility. It needs a large building that supports people to get out of homelessness, instead of making it feel like they ain't worth nothing."

A real bed, a shower, some help job hunting -- that, he says, could make all the difference.

Catholic Charities will need to pull together funding from a variety of public and private sources to make the relocation plan a reality. The shelter and service center will cost an estimated $39 million. The proposed affordable housing, which will come later, is projected to cost $24 million.