New home in the works for the homeless in St. Paul

| May 8, 2015 | 0 Comments
Artist's conception of Catholic Charities' planned new Dorothy Day Center on the edge of downtown St. Paul, with the Cathedral of St. Paul in the background. Courtesy Cermak Rhoades Architects.

Artist’s conception of Catholic Charities’ planned new Dorothy Day Center on the edge of downtown St. Paul, with the Cathedral of St. Paul in the background. Courtesy Cermak Rhoades Architects.

Rick Mertz wouldn’t have liked seeing 250 people sleeping on the floor at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul.

The late Father Frederick "Rick" Mertz.

The late Father Frederick “Rick” Mertz.

The late Assumption Parish pastor’s name was invoked early on May 8 when Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis launched a capital campaign to add much-needed housing and dignified emergency shelter to the ministry that was Rick’s idea 34 years ago.

Tim Marx mentioned Father Mertz at a breakfast for community leaders in the dining room at Dorothy Day.

Marx, who is president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities, pointed to a photo on two screens in the room.

“Ninety minutes before the doors opened for this breakfast, 250 people were sleeping on thin mats on the floor where we are eating,” Marx said.

“Homelessness,” he added, “was thought to be a temporary problem when Father Frederick Mertz first reached out to Catholic Charities to begin the Dorothy Day Center.”

What started June 1, 1981, as a drop-in center for what were then called “street people,” Dorothy Day has grown from a place where those with nowhere to go could get a meal and sit for awhile to a critical haven for the homeless offering a variety of services to help people rebuild their lives.

It has evolved into an emergency shelter as well, Marx said, an overcrowded one that has reluctantly been forced to turn people away at times.

At the Dorothy Day Center, some 250 people sleep on the floor on thin mats every night. Courtesy Catholic Charities.

At the Dorothy Day Center, some 250 people sleep on the floor on thin mats every night. Courtesy Catholic Charities.

Two-building project

Additions to the Dorothy Day campus that the $40 million fundraising effort will help pay for will include a St. Paul version of Higher Ground, the successful model of emergency and permanent housing options that Catholic Charities operates in Minneapolis, plus a Connections Center, where those in need can be connected to services to improve their health, income, housing stability and well-being.

The $40 million being sought from private parties will be joined with public funds from the state, county and city to build the $100 million project.

The campaign has already raised more than $11.1 million from private sources, including a $5 million lead grant from the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation; $1 million grants from the Frey Foundation and the Pohlad Foundation; and a combined $1.1 million from the St. Paul Foundation, the F.R. Bigelow Foundation and the Mardag Foundation.

In the first phase, construction is expected to start in June on Higher Ground St. Paul on the triangle of land bounded by I-35E, West 5th St. and North Main St. It is expected to open in 2016.

The Connections Center will be phase two, projected to be open in 2018. It will be built east across Main St. from Higher Ground, adjacent to the current Dorothy Day Center, which is kitty-corner from the Excel Energy Center on West 7th St. at Old Sixth St.

At the May 8 breakfast, Ecolab chairman and CEO Douglas Baker, one of the co-chairs of the capital campaign, spoke of driving by homeless people on the way to and from Ecolab’s corporate headquarters in downtown St. Paul.

“The need is there,” Baker said, “and it’s growing. We now have a great example of being able to do something about it.

“We’ve got the need, we’ve got a plan, we know what we need for resources.”

Also co-chairing the drive are Mary Brainerd, CEO and president of HealthPartners, and Andy Cecere, vice chairman and chief operating office of U.S. Bank.

Baker described American way of life as one in which opportunity is open to all and a society that rewards good work, but said that the system doesn’t always work for everyone, for a variety of reasons, sometimes of people’s own doing and sometimes not.

A society has to be judged on what we do for the people for whom it doesn’t work, Baker said.

“We have a time-honored tradition here,” he added. “We’re blessed in this community. We try to do the right thing. We still lead with our heart.”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman told the roomful of business and civic leaders that supporting the vision for the Dorothy Day Center is “among the most important work we can do.” He said it will be “a way to say that the people who need us the most are just as important as anyone else.”

Coleman, who at the suggestion of Marx had called together a task force of community leaders to work on a solution to the increasing number of homeless in Minnesota’s capitol city, said people should not be sleeping on the floor.

“That should not be; that will not be,” the mayor said.

The new Dorothy Day Center project will help people “to find a pathway off the street and help them find a pathway to dignity,” he added.

“How fitting we’re named after a saint,” the mayor of St. Paul said. “We have to live up to that name.”

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