Dorothy Day Center to stay in downtown St. Paul

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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

The Dorothy Day Center has dropped its plan to build new facilities northeast of its present location in downtown St. Paul.

Instead, the homeless shelter plans to expand operations at its current location near the Xcel Center. The shelter is currently coming up short in its mission to provide services for the homeless, said Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities, which runs the center.

After a committee hearing at the state Capitol, where lawmakers gave initial approval for $18 million in bond funding to help expand the center, Marx said it was never intended as a place for people to sleep.

"Dorothy Day was not designed, was not legally structured, to shelter people, and now it's deteriorating to the point of being dangerous on occasion," Marx said. "So we're in the situation where we need to have a revision of Dorothy Day."

The center opened in 1981, and was named for a prominent Roman Catholic social activist who died the year before. Marx said it was originally meant to be a drop-in center, where people could grab a bite to eat and warm their hands around a cup of coffee. But he said the number of homeless people grew quickly in subsequent years, and the Dorothy Day Center was asked to do more and more.

"To shelter people temporarily during the winter, then permanently year round. And then add women and then add a non-medical detox. And now we're in the position where often we have to turn people away," Marx said.

Mayor Chris Coleman said Monday that there isn't time to work through problems that would have come along with the new location. Coleman said issues associated with homelessness in St. Paul require urgent action.

A task force set up in May by Coleman released the Dorothy Day ReVision report seven months later, which recommended closing the current shelter and replacing it with two new buildings on Grove Street near Lafayette Road. It would have included an emergency shelter with permanent housing and could house and shelter up to 470 people.

But with the Union Gospel Mission shelter already in the area, the plan drew strong opposition from neighbors, who feared a further concentration of poverty in a part of the city hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. Coleman said he's confident the proposal could have moved forward. But with a tight timeline to get state funding, the mayor said there was no time to argue or cajole.

"If we lost sight of the goal, because we were too busy fighting for getting our way, the only people who would have lost are the homeless folks who are in desperate need for a new facility," Coleman said. "I think in the end, we would have convinced the community that was a good path forward, but the energy expended would have just detracted us from our mission."

Leslie McMurray, the executive director of the Payne-Phalen District 5 Planning Council, said she's glad Catholic Charities has changed course.

"It seems that the mayor and the Dorothy Day ReVision Task Force have responded to what they heard, and have made a decision that we think is the right decision," McMurray said.

Another reason for the now-scuttled plans to move the Dorothy Day Center were concerns by the business community that having a homeless shelter in such a prominent location would be bad for the city's image. Some of the center's clients also said they felt as if they were on display.

"The shelter started in 1981, and the neighborhood changed around it," said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the Dorothy Day task force.

Concerns about the center's location remain valid, Kramer said. But he said a much bigger worry is helping homeless people in a dignified manner.

"We're going to make this work. The business community that I have the honor to represent is extraordinarily committed to the Dorothy Day Center. It's hard to list a St. Paul business of consequence that doesn't have volunteers down there on a regular basis, on a year-round basis," Kramer said.

Catholic Charities' Tim Marx says once the mix of public and private funding is in place, he hopes to break ground on the first phase of the expanded Dorothy Day Center as soon as next year. Phase two will consist of additional permanent housing. In the nearer term, plans call for an expanded emergency shelter -- and a Connection Center that will help people find jobs, food and health care -- the original mission of the center when it opened 33 years ago.

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