Catholic Charities bringing more men out of cold

| Kathryn Elliott | November 21, 2011 | 1 Comment

Dorothy Day Center overflow shelter in St. Paul accommodates greater need this winter

Silas Martin places personal items on a shelf next to his bed at the Dorothy Day Center emergency overflow shelter in St. Paul Nov. 15. Jim Bovin / For The Catholic Spirit

From dusk to dawn in the winter months, homeless men can sleep on gray pallets inside the former offices of Catholic Char­ities on the corner of Old Sixth Street in St. Paul.

Last year, the City of St. Paul authorized the overflow emergency shelter — known as the “annex” — for Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center to open during the last two weeks of the month, from January to April. Twenty-five people could stay each night by the terms of a conditional use permit from the city.

This year, the city recognized an even higher need for space and upped the allowable building occupants to 50, expanding the permit to let the homeless come every day of the month if necessary — almost 100 additional nights throughout the winter. The catch is that more men will be needed to staff the annex at night, said Gerry Lauer, a senior program manager for the Doro­thy Day Center.

Winter’s challenge

Catholic Charities staff members were surprised to see hundreds camping outside the center this summer and anticipate those numbers will be driven higher as temperatures drop.

Inside the Dorothy Day Center, up to 200 men and women can stay overnight per day. Combined with the 50 additional spots at the annex, Lauer said he is confident that will meet the need this winter.

Mike, a homeless man who’s received Social Security disability payments for several years, said that while he’s heard about shelters that are “over-controlling” or have problems with theft, the Dorothy Day Center has good food, medical care and resources to help people look for housing and jobs.

For many homeless people, winter is a tiring game of hiding from shopkeepers and mall cops, he said.

“Just to walk around is hard. There’s no money to get on the bus — that’s hard. There’s no way to stay warm. There’s no place to go and it’s minus 10 degrees,” Mike said.

“If [homeless people] have no money the best they can do is go to the Skywalk but you have to buy something, so you hide or keep walking and walking and walking.”

The overflow accommodations where Mike often stays are simple but safe. Two volunteers and a Catholic Charities staff person spend the night in the sleeping area, helping admit people and serving in whatever way is needed.

From CEO to volunteer

Right now, the volunteers come almost exclusively from St. John Neumann in Eagan. If groups of men from a few other churches could pick up some night shifts, Lauer said it could bring in new possibilities for the program.

Seven months into his job as CEO of Catholic Charities, Tim Marx has agreed to volunteer a night to help support the overflow space. Marx said it’s important to him to visit all of Catholic Charities’ programs during the times they’re offered.

While helping to staff the overflow shelter, someone else will be in charge, so Marx said he’ll do as he’s told. “I’m not CEO that night, I’m a volunteer.”

From left, volunteer Steve Hawkins of St. John Neumann in Eagan and Gerry Lauer, senior program manager at Catholic Charities Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, stand in an annex that will be used to offer overnight shelter for up to 50 men. The annex is located on the second floor of a Catholic Charities building next door to the Dorothy Day Center. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Apple Valley resident Paul Stoll, a regular volunteer, said men from his parish of St. John Neumann who sleep at the annex soon realize that poverty isn’t a partisan issue, but a human issue. Stoll said he’s watched real compassion set in when men realize, “the guy on the street corner is ‘Johnny,’ and he’s a person.”

As a 51-year-old database marketer, Tim Kantor said he hardly knew what a homeless person might look like until two years ago when he was inspired to help out at the annex. This winter, he’s signing up to volunteer several weekends a month and insists that the commitment takes precedence over his other outings and activities.

In the shelter, the focus is not on economic success. Volunteers speak on equal footing with the clients that need a place to stay, said Kantor, also a parishioner at St. John Neumann.

Last spring, Kantor became friends with some of the men. They would go out to McDonalds after nights in the annex.  One time a “regular” at the shelter brought Kantor a family scrapbook and proudly shared details of his history.

“He knew that I cared enough to hear about his life story,” Kantor said. “By sharing his family, he gave to me.”

Keeping people inside and out of the cold needs to be a community effort, said Lauer. It’s a matter of human dignity.

“[Volunteering] only makes me realize how much God blesses us each and every day,” Kantor said. “But he also looks to us to take care of each other.”

Want to help? To volunteer at the Dorothy Day Center’s overflow shelter, contact Steve Hawkins at For additional information, visit the Catholic Charities website.

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