Higher Ground housing sparks hope for homeless men

| June 5, 2012 | 0 Comments

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Higher Ground grand opening was held June 7. Participants were Kate Kelly, (left, holding ribbon) interim director of communications and marketing at Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA; Don Samuels, Fifth Ward Minneapolis City Council member; Tim Marx, CEO-Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Gail Dorfman, Third District Hennepin County commissioner; Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Mark Stenglein, president and CEO of Minneapolis Downtown Council; and Msgr. Jerome Boxleitner, a former executive director of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (Jim Bovin / For The Catholic Spirit)

If there were ever a perfect time to use the phrase “Let there be light,” it would have been at the dedication ceremony June 7 for Higher Ground, Cath­o­lic Charities’ new $18 million center for home­less men.

The center at 165 Glenwood Ave. in Minneapolis is not only flooded with natural light from 294 windows, but the services it will provide beginning June 11 will bring the light of hope to the men who will fill the space.

John Petroskas stands in one of the supportive housing units in Higher Ground, where he is the tenant services coordinator. (Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit)

When John Petroskas, tenant services coordinator at Higher Ground, gave a media tour prior to the public ceremony, he was beaming with the possibilities for the men he has been serving for the past seven years at 1000 Currie Ave., just a few blocks away from the new building.

“The one thing that’s exciting for me is the transparency — people can see out and people can see in,” said Petroskas, as he noted the views of the Farmers Market on one side and of downtown and the Greenway Biking Trail on the other side.

“It’s almost like physically inviting people into the world.”

The current shelter on Currie is dark, hemmed in by a parking garage, a vacant lot and other buildings, including the Salvation Army.

A sun-filled lounge area will provide a space for tenants to create community and for Higher Ground staff to work with the men who are living in the new building. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Clients inspire provider

“Our campus here allows for people to move on,” Petroskas said. “I’m inspired by the resilience and dignity of the men I’ve been privileged to work with during my time at Catholic Charities. Their struggles and their successes motivate me to continue doing this work.”

One success story, among the many he has witnessed, was a client that slept under a bridge that Petroskas drove past on his way to work each day.

“Whenever I pass under it, I look up at the spot where he used to sleep and I think about how great it was when he finally moved into an apartment,” he said. “He has continued his recovery from mental illness, drug addiction and isolation — and today he’s stable enough that he can give back to the community by volunteering and being a great neighbor in the senior high-rise where he now lives.”

During the dedication ceremony, Archbishop John Nienstedt was to present a check for $100,000 — in honor of former CEO Paul Martodam and his 35 years of service to the work of Catholic Charities — to support the construction of Higher Ground. That contribution goes above and beyond the $1.4 million the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis provides to support Catholic Charities’ work of serving the poor.

“I congratulate Tim Marx [current CEO] and his staff for their tireless efforts to respond, in such a positive way, to the scourge of homelessness,” said Archbishop Nienstedt, who is chair of the organization’s board. “Our dedication ceremony on June 7 offers great hope for the poor in our midst.”

In addition to the archbishop, a host of other dignitaries attended the ceremony, which began with tours from 3 to 4 p.m. and a reception from 4 to 6 p.m. for invited guests. Major funding was provided by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, $12.7 million; Community Housing and Development, $926,000; Hennepin County, $2.1 million; Minneapolis’ Metropolitan Council, $284,000; and $2.3 million raised by Catholic Charities from many foundations, corporations and individuals.

A way to move up and out

Architectural rendering

“A lot of people think a homeless shelter is a place where you go and get stuck and stay there forever,” Petroskas said. “That’s not the case at all.”

A recent report on shelter services showed that of the 3,000 men served in an 18-month period, 20 percent were at the shelter for one night and half were there for a week or less, he said.

“Most people who come through our doors are here because they have a personal emergency. They work their way through that and we don’t see them again,” he said.

Many of the amenities to be offered at Higher Ground are designed to help the men, literally, move up and out.

  • The first floor will provide emergency overnight shelter for 171 men.
  • The second floor will have 80 beds available for the pay-for-stay program. The beds are set up in pods of four beds, a little more privacy, a storage locker, an adaptor to plug in a cell phone, shared bathrooms, showers, vending machines and expanded hours, all for an $8 per-night fee.
  • The third and fourth floors will have 38 private rooms with shared baths and kitchens for clients with persistent mental health and/or chemical health issues.
  • The fifth and sixth floors will house 36 residents who are experiencing long-term home­lessness, in single rooms and shared kitchens and baths.
  • The seventh floor will have 11 furnished efficiency apartments that include private kitchen and bath facilities for low-income individuals.
Higher GroundA look at the new $18 million, 74,000-square-foot-home for homeless men in Minneapolis:336 Total housing units
171 Emergency beds
80 Pay-for-stay beds
74 Single room housing units
11 Affordable efficiency units

  • Housing assistance
  • Computer lab
  • Medical care
  • Supportive services

More information about Catholic Charities or Higher Ground.

Along with emergency shelter and housing, Higher Ground will provide meals, a medical clinic, various supportive services, a computer and a mail slot with an address, which is key to obtaining a job.

“Unfortunately, we have a small number of people who are here for very long periods of time,” Petroskas said.

The top 10 individual shelter-users consume as much shelter in an 18-month time period as the bottom 1,600, he said.  So, if the top 10 guys move out of emergency beds, it makes room for 1,600.

“That’s the reason we built the housing on top of this,” he said. “There’s a reason those 10 guys are stuck in shelter.”

Severe mental health issues, chemical health issues, medical issues and long-term homelessness make transition to independent housing difficult for those clients, he said.

“There is a lot of regimentation in homelessness that you lose when you move into your own place,” he said.

By recruiting people from downstairs to move upstairs when there are openings, Catholic Charities hopes that clients will come to believe that there is a pathway out of their homelessness.

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