East Side residents raise concerns about proposed homeless shelter

A map of downtown St. Paul shows the proposed site for a new Dorothy Day Center on the eastern edge of downtown, along with the current location on the western edge of downtown. (submitted graphic)

New Dorothy Day Center development could land near the East Side

Depending on whom you ask, the potential site for Catholic Charities’ new homeless shelter is on the edge of the East Side, the edge of downtown St. Paul, or both.

Seeking to better service St. Paul’s homeless population, the organization is looking to add 50 beds for emergency shelter, transitional housing space, and 135 permanent supportive housing units.

The group has identified a state-owned plot near the intersection of University Avenue and Lafayette Road as a possible site. The spot is currently in use by the state as storage for items removed from the Capitol building during its renovation.

The site is roughly half a mile from any residence; both to the closest home on the East Side and to the residences at Wacouta Commons on northeast edge of downtown.

At a board meeting for the Payne-Phalen Community Council on Tuesday, Jan. 28, residents from the Payne-Phalen, Dayton’s Bluff and Railroad Island neighborhoods turned up to hear Catholic Charities pitch the proposed shelter, and to voice concerns.

“I know there’s a lot of concern for this property,” Bev Turner told the community council board.

Turner, a Catholic Charities board member and resident of the East Side’s Mounds Park neighborhood, said the organization’s Dorothy Day Center, which provides emergency shelter for over 250 adults a night, has long been in need of a new facility.

Turner apologized for not appearing sooner, and said Catholic Charities’ approach had perhaps been a case of putting “the cart before the horse,” but added that the planning process had a long ways to go, and the organization had not acquired any land and was still weighing options.

Nancy Homans, lead policy person at the mayor’s office, said in an interview that “the fact that the Dorothy Day Center has outlived its usefulness is just a critical issue that needs to be dealt with.”

Homans said that the Dorothy Day Center became a crisis for the city when the fire marshal inspected the place and said, “’This just isn’t safe.’”

Turner ended her comments by telling a heartrending tale of one formerly homeless man and a volunteer who saw the man at Dorothy Day Center over the years. The volunteer happened upon him again and he was beaming.

“The guy showed him a key to his own place,” she said.

Where will they go?

A major question surrounding the meeting was where homeless people at the proposed site might go once they are let out of emergency housing during the day.

Residents wondered whether parks such as Swede Hollow would see an influx of homeless people, perhaps roaming around with bottles of alcohol.

Homans said the plan would be for the people at the Dorothy Day Center to go next door to another Catholic Charities facility, called the Connection Center, where they could get job training and other resources to help them get out of homelessness.

“The center would connect 450 people per day with services, resources and opportunities, including computer labs, job training and referral programs, meals, and permanent housing resources,” the Dorothy Day website reads.

The center would be a resource for the community at large, Turner said, and with Union Gospel Mission right down the street, would benefit a variety of low-income people.

Beyond that, Turner said the people served at the emergency shelter might be more likely to gravitate towards downtown than up into the East Side.

Overcrowded, deteriorating building

According to a report from Catholic Charities, “the Dorothy Day Center has now reached the breaking point. There is often not enough room for all who come to the door, and the space itself is crowded and deteriorating. People like Karl, a frequent visitor, are provided mats and meals and yearn, as he says, for ‘a job and a place of his own.’”

“We are failing Karl, so many others like him, ourselves and the entire community,” the report reads.

Dorothy Day Center was built in 1981 at Old Sixth Street and East Seventh Street in downtown St. Paul, not far from the Xcel Energy Center. It was supposed to be a drop-in shelter, not an emergency shelter, Turner said.

But, with the need for overnight shelter, “it became by necessity an emergency shelter,” she said. Catholic Charities received a zoning variance in 2000 to have the structure become an overnight shelter, after which “it rapidly became overcrowded and cramped,” she said. Such is the state of the shelter today.

If the new shelter were to go up, Catholic Charities would likely tear down the existing center and build permanent housing to help break the cycle of homelessness.

At the current site, Turner said that “our clients feel like they’re on display when they’re out there” in front of the center, after the homeless are turned out of the shelter in the mornings.

Following an example

The new facility would be modeled after Higher Ground, a Minneapolis-based shelter of Catholic Charities that is in a mostly industrial area on the edge of downtown Minneapolis (and also the edge of the North Side of Minneapolis), near International Market Square.

Turner said the facility has been a success, and has provided permanent housing to many formerly homeless people.

And relations with neighbors have gone well, she said.

“Neighbors have been pleasantly surprised,” she said, offering to give East Siders tours of the facility to show them what they’re doing.

Why here?

Because of zoning restrictions, Homans said the organization doesn’t have a lot of options -- emergency shelters are required to be near downtown and in industrial areas.

Homans said the mayor’s office and Catholic Charities looked at a number of other sites as possibilities, including the Sears building near the state Capitol, a site on West Seventh Street, in the Como neighborhood, in the police headquarters parking lot, and on the West Side.

“We looked at being as far away from neighborhoods as we could,” she said. “We’re still looking.”

Homans said the proximity to downtown, Regions Hospital, the Central Corridor Light Rail and warehouse-type employment in the vicinity made the University Avenue and Lafayette Road location appealing.

She also touted the proximity of the Ramsey County Mental Health’s Urgent Care Center, located near University Avenue and Olive Street.

East Siders speak up

Payne-Phalen resident Sarah Geving said, “We already have a huge concentration of poverty on the East Side.”

“We already can’t employ the people we have living here,” she said.

Fred Yarusso, owner of the long-standing East Side restaurant Yarusso’s, said he was concerned about the prospect of the shelter coming near his establishment.

He said business might suffer if his patrons see people getting handcuffed in front of the place as a result of the new placement.

“It seems we go one step forward and two steps back,” Yarusso said.

Another resident said she worried how the center’s placement might affect perception of the Lower East Side, which she said “has enough burdens already.”

“As much as we need to have compassion ... I think the city has to have the same compassion for the East Side.”

DFL state Rep. Tim Mahoney voiced his concerns both as a politician and an East Side homeowner.

“Twenty-five percent of the affordable housing in Ramsey County is in this area,” he said. “It’s a fairness issue.”

He went further, asking a number of questions to be responded to at a later date. He wondered what the Ramsey County sheriff and the St. Paul Police Department thought of the location.

“I’m trying to keep an open mind,” he said.

Board member David Syers ended the comments section by thanking community members for input, and telling them “don’t let this be a thorn in your side.”

“There’s no easy answer here,” he said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com, or follow on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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