As Christmas approaches, Dorothy Day volunteer reflects on space transition

| December 23, 2016 | 0 Comments

Jim Erdman of St. Odilia in Shoreview greets people who come through the food line Dec. 14 at Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

Retired 3M marketer Jim Erdman is ever the salesman while serving a lesser-known dish at Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul.

Best shepherd’s pie,” Erdman tells one guest going through the lunch line Dec. 14.

Ever had shepherd’s pie before?” Erdman asks another. “You’re going to get a chance today.”

A parishioner of St. Odilia in Shoreview, Erdman, 70, said he enjoys connecting with the Dorothy Day Center’s guests and fellow volunteers during his biweekly shifts. He has volunteered at its site on Old Sixth Street for nine years, and will be among those helping Dorothy Day transition its services to new facilities beginning next year.

As many as 300 people eat at Dorothy Day each day. This year’s Christmas meal will be the last time its guests eat a holiday dinner at the longtime site, according to Catholic Charities’ timeline. Next year, meals are expected to be served in a transition space as Catholic Charities completes two new buildings designed to better meet guests’ needs.

As lunch service begins, a lengthy line starts at the cafeteria door and meanders around Dorothy Day’s main entry as guests — mostly men, with a few women and children -— wait to come through.

Erdman and fellow volunteers greet them one by one and fill food trays ready for pick up.

When you see the client guests come through, you realize the difference [you’re making],” Erdman said.

Erdman said he valued Dorothy Day’s work for years and decided to get involved after his retirement. He worked in food service while in college and still enjoys it, making his role at Dorothy Day a good fit. His tasks vary based on the type of food donations and meals planned by the professional chefs. The morning they served shepherd’s pie, he tore apart stalks of Brussels sprouts.

Enhancing services

As Erdman has served meals over the years, he’s noted trends among the homeless men and women who come for food. He thinks changing family structures have led to increased homelessness, and he has been surprised to observe an age shift among guests. More young adults — he guesses ages 18-25 — are coming through the lunch line than when he started, he said.

The Dorothy Day Center has offered meals to homeless men and women in St. Paul since 1981. Now, it also provides mental health services, medical care and showers. Its space includes a temporary women’s shelter, and at night, its cafeteria serves as an emergency shelter on a first-come, first-served basis. It was named to honor Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement who died in 1980 and whose cause for canonization is underway.

The center’s growing needs warranted bigger facilities. With support of community leaders, Catholic Charities is nearing completion of the first phase of a two-building, $100 million project. It expects to soon open Higher Ground St. Paul on a lot adjacent to the Dorothy Day Center to provide improved housing for the men and women it serves.

Its leaders initially hoped to open portions of the building before Christmas, but pushed back the move-in date due to unfinished construction.

The Dorothy Day Center’s brick building will be demolished in 2017 to make way for the project’s next phase, the Opportunity Center, which will be constructed on its lot. Scheduled to open in 2018, that facility will provide meals, medical care, mental health counseling, job search help and related services for guests.

Having faith

Erdman can see how more space will benefit the guests, especially at Higher Ground, which will have bunk beds for 280 people and low-rent, single-occupancy rooms for another 364 people.

In Dorothy Day’s current space, an average of 250 guests sleep on mats laid tightly together on the cafeteria and entry floors.

It looks like a page of postage stamps in the cafeteria,” Erdman said. “They put people down 1 foot away from the next person on a mat. That’s all going to change with the new St. Paul Higher Ground.”

During the transition, meals will temporarily take place at nearby Mary Hall, a Catholic Charities-run affordable housing apartment building.

It’s much smaller, so we’re going to have to extend the hours of operation,” Erdman said.

That increases the need for volunteers, too, which Dorothy Day Center’s kitchen supervisor Mike DeJong said usually number eight to 10 workers per shift.

Inspired by Higher Ground Minneapolis, Higher Ground St. Paul will fulfill the first stage of a mission for Tim Marx since becoming Catholic Charities’ CEO in 2011. He led the cause for developing the new facilities and sees the robust community response as a sign of hope for the poor.

This is, I think, probably the biggest housewarming party in the history of the State of Minnesota, and we’re so proud that the community is responding the way that it has,” Marx said.

With all the moving parts of the transition, Erdman said he and everyone involved with Dorothy Day need to trust “that the process will be faith-directed, God directed” and that they’ll arrive at “a workable solution” in the new space.

He keeps in mind the big picture of this ministry as serving God.

That’s kind of faith in action to begin with,” he said.

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