Higher Ground more than shelter for St. Paul's homeless

After nearly two years of construction and several years planning before that, the Dorothy Day Center’s new Higher Ground building has opened to the homeless in St. Paul.

While it does replace the old center’s overnight shelter, it’s much more ambitious than that. Rather than just give the homeless a place to sleep out of the cold, it aims to fix the underlying problems.

"The major focus of this building is chronic homeless, long-term homeless, those folks who have for a variety of reasons been stuck in shelter,” said Gerry Lauer, Dorothy Day Senior Program Manager.

On the main floor are two shelter spaces, one for men and one for women, the two groups now divided. The beds are bunk-style, with secure lockers so people can sleep without worry their belongings, typically everything they own, might be stolen.

But it’s what is on the other four floors that Catholic Charities, which owns and operates the center, hopes can finally provide some fixes.

“The critical solution we need here and throughout the entire state is simply more housing for very low income people,” said Catholic Charities President and CEO Tim Marx.

The original Dorothy Day Center opened in 1961, mainly as a place to serve hot meals. Over time it began taking in people overnight, but they are crammed onto the floor on mats with a row of folding chairs dividing men from women. The center added some low-income housing, but could only serve about 15 people.

The new Higher Ground building has shelter space for 280 people and low-income housing for 193, altogether nearly double what they could do in the old place.

It also offers some daytime shelter space for those homeless who are working overnight shifts and get off work just as other shelters are closing for the day.

“It’s one of those things that’s really hard for folks who are working that third shift,” said Lauer. “Where do you find that place to sleep because most shelters don’t make that available.”

The new building also has a wing for respite care, where the homeless who’ve just been discharged from a hospital can get help as they continue to recover.

Catholic Charities has a far bigger vision. They’ve raised $35 million of a $40 million goal to build what they call Phase Two. It would replace the old center and offer the daytime services of meals and job training, connections to other community services and 171 additional low-income housing units. About another $12 million is needed from this year’s legislature to complete the financing, with construction slated to begin this summer and completion by the end of 2018.