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Higher Ground, new homeless shelter, open for first night in St. Paul

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Victor Godinez
Victor Godinez washes the windows of the new Catholic Charities Higher Ground St. Paul Center before it opens for its first night on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

As temperatures dipped into the single digits on Thursday evening, a new homeless shelter in downtown St. Paul opened for its first night. 

Higher Ground offers both emergency shelter and more permanent housing for people who have struggled with homelessness. 

The shelter replaces the overcrowded Dorothy Day Center, which provided emergency shelter in the city for the last 15 years. The new building is part of a planned $100 million project proposed by Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The organization hopes Higher Ground will become a model for the region, demonstrating not only how to deal with homelessness, but also how to solve it.

The Higher Ground St. Paul Center
The sun shines on the new Catholic Charities Higher Ground St. Paul Center on the day of it's grand opening.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Christina Veras said she's been homeless for almost two years. 

"My mom passed away, and that was a hard thing. Lots of things went wrong after that, and I ended up here," Veras said. "I was homeless for about a year before that, but I was living in my car with my son, then my car broke down and then I ended up having to come here."

In the nine months she's been staying at Dorothy Day, Veras said she hasn't had a full night's sleep. Men and women's spaces in the main sleeping room are divided by a line of folding chairs. 

People argue or walk around all night. They're required to wake up at 5:30 a.m.  

A resident room.
Construction workers work on a cherry picker outside the window of one of the rooms.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I wake up every morning and I can't believe I'm here, it's like a nightmare, I haven't woken up from it," she said. "It's a scary thing. It's really hard not to have a place to live." 

Veras isn't sure what to expect from the Higher Ground shelter, but she's optimistic and glad she won't have to sleep on the floor anymore. 

She hopes that staff at the new building can help her on the path of getting her own apartment again. 

Tim Marx, the CEO of Catholic Charities, said Dorothy Day was never equipped to serve as a shelter. It opened in 1981 as a drop-in center for meals. 

"This was never intended to be shelter, it was a patchwork solution, for what we thought would be a temporary situation that's lasted 15 years," he said. "It's become undignified." 

Dorothy Day Center staff shifted their operations to the new Higher Ground building next door on Thursday. There are still many details to finish in the building — some stairs on the second and third floors are still unfinished bare wood and walls need painting. But Catholic Charities wanted to get people into the new building. It will provide about twice as much space as Dorothy Day, including some permanent apartments

Gerry Lauer speaks to reporters.
"It's really important that we help people understand how important coming here and relaxing is," Senior Program Manager Gerry Lauer told reporters, stressing the importance of providing a quiet and calm environment for residents.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The emergency shelter has space for 280 people. Women now have their own secure area to sleep in. Each room has rows of shiny new bunk beds, each with a locker and electrical outlets. The building also has more bathrooms and showers, which were always in short supply in Dorothy Day.

"It's important to have that sense of dignity so people can actually get a night's rest," Marx said. "When they do that, then we have the opportunity to know them better, and to work with them, because in this cacophony we just lose people. And they get lost. And we know that." 

Many of the longtime residents of Dorothy Day will also move into 193 new permanent housing units in the Higher Ground building. They're set up like dorm rooms. Residents will pay by the night and share bathrooms, lounges and kitchens. Case workers are available on each floor.

One of the people moving in Thursday was Eugene Martin. He's looking forward to having his own room. He said he wants to get organized, maybe get his driver's license back. 

"For one, I get the peace and quiet, just to get away from all this static — I'm living with over 300 people," Martin said. "Moving into my own room will be a big change for me, I get to start my life all over again."

Higher Ground is the first phase of development of the new Dorothy Day campus envisioned by Catholic Charities. 

The next phase includes an all-new 50,000 square-foot building on the site of the current Dorothy Day Center that will include health services and job training, as well as an additional 171 permanent housing units. Marx said it's about more than providing a roof and walls. 

"What this signifies is what a community can do when it puts its heart and soul and resources and its best thinking into solving a complex social program, rather than just managing it and sweeping over it and hiding it," Marx said.

The state of Minnesota, Ramsey County and other public sources have provided $25 million in funding for the overall project, which will be called Dorothy Day Place. The rest of the funding has come from private sources. Catholic Charities is hoping Legislators this session will commit another about $27 million in housing infrastructure and general obligation bonds to help breathe life into their vision.