Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground: Multi-service approach to homelessness

| February 1, 2019 | 0 Comments
Markeus Taylor has found a home at Higher Ground in St. Paul. Others in Minnesota are not so blessed. Shelters and affordable housing are full, and people routinely find shelter in public transit, skyways and vestibules. Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which built and runs Higher Ground and other shelters and affordable housing options, is among agencies trying to help and lobbying for more affordable housing in Minnesota.

Markeus Taylor has found a home at Higher Ground in St. Paul. Others in Minnesota are not so blessed. Shelters and affordable housing are full, and people routinely find shelter in public transit, skyways and vestibules. Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which built and runs Higher Ground and other shelters and affordable housing options, is among agencies trying to help and lobbying for more affordable housing in Minnesota. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Two large encampments of homeless people, one in St. Paul, another in Minneapolis, drew unprecedented attention this fall and winter to the plight of people unable to afford a home, including the working poor, unemployed, mentally ill and intellectually disabled.

More than 7,000 people on any given night in Minnesota experience life on the streets, in shelters or transitional housing programs, based on numbers gathered in an annual survey conducted by local agencies for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The high cost of health care, persistent racial disparities, a hot housing market in a growing economy and lack of proper support for people facing mental health and other health difficulties create a challenging environment, experts said.

But Catholic Charities has stepped into that environment with vision and energy through a Higher Ground facility in each city that in one place provides overnight shelter, transitional “pay-to-stay” shelters, permanent apartments for people suffering from late-stage alcoholism and other chronic barriers to housing, as well as food service, job assistance and health care.

In St. Paul, finishing touches are being made on an Opportunity Center that will offer hot meals, social and health services and apartments beginning in late summer or early fall. The center is adjacent to the Higher Ground shelter and apartments that opened in 2017.

Collectively called Dorothy Day Place, the $100 million facilities are the largest public-private partnership in housing and social services in Minnesota history. They replace Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center, which had served the downtown homeless population since 1981, first as a drop-in center for meals and later as a shelter it was never truly designed to be, with bedding on the floor.

The new facilities are modeled after Catholic Charities’ successful Higher Ground effort in Minneapolis, which includes many of the same services and opened seven years ago.

HOMES FOR ALL COALITION PROPOSES $430 MILLION PACKAGEA statewide coalition of more than 200 organizations for the homeless that includes Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis proposed a package Jan. 23 of $430 million in state spending and borrowing to create affordable housing.

At a news conference at the State Capitol, members of Homes For All suggested $300 million in housing bonds to build and preserve affordable and emergency housing across Minnesota.

They urged appropriating $55 million to the Minnesota Housing Agency to produce more homes for workers, match local community resources, help families attain home ownership and prevent homelessness. The group proposed allocating $25 million to the Department of Human Services to provide emergency shelter and supportive services for homeless families, and housing assistance for people with severe mental illness.

Another proposal calls for $50 million in dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to a fund for locally directed affordable housing projects.

The proposals stem from recommendations made last year by former Gov. Mark Dayton’s Governor’s Task Force on Housing.

It’s not the only recent effort to create more affordable housing in Minnesota. Lawmakers approved selling $100 million in housing bonds in 2014 and an additional $87 million last year.

— Joe Ruff

Affordable housing

The nonprofit organization’s effort is driven by faith and based on the call of Catholic social justice, said Tim Marx, Catholic Charities’ president and CEO and a member of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.

“Our work is deeply rooted in Catholic social teaching,” Marx told The Catholic Spirit in a recent interview at Higher Ground St. Paul. “We recognize the dignity of each person, and we believe that everyone deserves a safe place to call home.”

Higher Ground’s approach to homelessness alone will not solve the housing crisis, Marx said. A key element to helping more people is having society meet a basic need: Make certain everyone has an affordable place to live, Marx said.

Affordable housing can be the stable base people require, even as they get assistance with economic, health or other challenges, Marx said.

“We’re not going to ‘serve’ our way out of poverty,” Marx said.

But the seamless services provided by Catholic Charities are designed to help prevent and end homelessness, lifting clients from poverty to self-sufficiency.

Housing First

Widely known as Housing First, the approach described by Marx works to quickly connect the homeless to permanent housing, without preconditions or barriers to entry, such as sobriety or service participation. Supportive services are designed to maximize housing stability and prevent a return to homelessness.

That approach certainly has helped Markeus Taylor, a 42-year-old from Mississippi with mental health challenges who has struggled with employment and home loss for 21 years.

He first found a safe place to sleep on the floor of the Dorothy Day Center, then was placed in an apartment across the street in the nonprofit’s Mary Hall about 13 years ago, and two years ago moved into the new Higher Ground facility.

There are case workers on each floor. He likes Wednesday night community events, especially when they feature ice cream and music.

He is warm and dry. He works at a fast food restaurant when he can, and with government assistance he pays a subsidized rent.

Taylor said he likes working and staying where he is. But he would consider moving into the apartments being built above the Opportunity Center. He still remembers going from a floor to a bed at Catholic Charities.

“I felt relieved having a bed to sleep in for the very first time. And it’s still great,” he said.

How it works

Taylor lives in one of Higher Ground’s 193 permanent apartments, similar to college dorm rooms, where he and others can stay indefinitely. More than 170 similar apartments, with 77 of them including kitchens, are being built as part of the nearby Opportunity Center.

They are available for men and women who have barriers to housing, including disabilities, mental illness and chemical dependency.

The goal is to help them find stable ground, and eventually, if they can, move out to establish their own homes or apartments.

“We never force people out,” Marx said. “But we also work with people when they are ready to move on.”

The apartments vary in cost depending on ability to pay and government assistance. Rules are strict, including no overnight guests and no alcohol on site.

Higher Ground also includes an intake desk where the first order of business is determining whether permanent housing can be retained or found for people before they move into the shelter or other arrangement. The attached Opportunity Center will offer hot meals, contacts for government assistance and subsidized health care to assist people who might be on the edge of homelessness remain in their homes, Marx said. Those services temporarily are being offered at Mary Hall.

People who need emergency shelter can stay free at Higher Ground, with space for 172 men and 60 women. Space used one night can be reserved for the next night.

Higher Ground also offers a pay-to-stay shelter with 42 beds at $42 a week for men who are working. The money is saved for each client as they get back on their feet, to help them pay for a first month’s rent or down payment to a landlord.

The goal is to get people off the streets and into permanent housing, Marx said.

The shelter and housing do not allow couples or families. But Catholic Charities has another facility, Family Service Center in Maplewood, with emergency shelter for 21 homeless Ramsey County families. The nonprofit agency also has emergency shelter for children in crisis situations in Minneapolis, and other housing and social service initiatives.

Other agencies, state and local governments in St. Paul, Minneapolis and around Minnesota assist people who are homeless, such as St. Stephen’s Human Services in Minneapolis, St. Paul-based Union Gospel Mission Twin Cities and government assistance programs.

Community effort

Help for Taylor and others is being provided in the shadows of the State Capitol, the Cathedral of St. Paul and downtown’s commercial and entertainment district. And it was fueled by $40 million in corporate and other private donations, as well as $60 million in bonds and tax credits approved in 2017 by the state Legislature and
then-Gov. Mark Dayton.

It’s extremely rare for a community to “welcome and support something that serves up to 1,000 homeless” at the front doors of a city’s State Capitol and cathedral, Marx said. “That gives us (Catholic Charities) a sense of stewardship” and desire to manage it well, he said.

Housing encampments

Higher Ground in St. Paul also was only steps away from a homeless encampment of about 50 people that sprang up in St. Paul last summer. About the same time an encampment of more than 200 people formed in south Minneapolis along Hiawatha Avenue, perhaps the largest such camp in state history.

The encampments were a sign of increasing homelessness in the Twin Cities and around the country, sparked in part by rising costs of housing in a growing economy, Marx said.

Catholic Charities, parishes and other groups helped at both encampments, with Catholic Charities providing outreach workers at each camp and helping set up and providing the staff for an additional emergency shelter in St. Paul.

In Minneapolis, city officials sought permanent housing for people and temporarily replaced the camp with a gated compound of large, heated tents that will remain open until May. Social services are available, and Catholic Charities is providing three meals a day at that camp, which this summer is slated for groundbreaking of an affordable housing project sponsored by the Red Lake Nation.

Officials in both cities have been patient and worked hard to find housing and provide services for people in the camps, Marx said.

“It had not happened before on that scale,” Marx said of both encampments’ size.

The camps also presented different challenges, he said.

The Minneapolis camp drew a number of Native Americans, and city officials worked with that community to help those in need, Marx said. Drug deaths and overdoses, harassment and violence also became concerns at the Minneapolis camp. The St. Paul encampment was not dominated by any one group of people. And while not as many people were involved, health and safety were among concerns that prompted action on the part of city officials, he said.

One thing all sides are trying to avoid, Marx said, is having transitional housing become a permanent solution to homelessness.

That fate can be avoided by building more affordable housing and tackling challenges with “speed, scale and intensity,” similar to Catholic Charities’ multi-pronged efforts at Higher Ground, he said.


The Catholic Spirit is taking a four-part, multi-faceted look this year at homelessness in Minnesota and the ways agencies, governments and people work to prevent and eliminate homelessness. This issue highlights Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Higher Ground initiatives in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Homelessness Series:

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