Should The Dorothy Day Center Relocate?

“I hate being reminded how unequal things are in this city that I love. I hate that I’m forced to confront how little I’m doing about it. And I hate what my lack of generosity says about me, especially on the days I stop at the Starbucks one block down for a $2.15 tea.” – Amanda Erickson, Atlantic Cities

A few years ago, I worked at the Holiday Inn on West 7th St. in St. Paul, about a block away from the Dorothy Day Center. I operated the shuttle van – weddings, hockey games, college visits, bar-hopping, etc.. From short cuts to scenic routes, I learned the local landscape of where to take people, and equally as important, where not to take people.

Half of the job was giving directions, and wanting each visitor have a positive experience, I intentionally gave walking directions that detoured Dorothy Day. It wasn’t uncommon for 40 to 50 homeless people to be sitting, loitering, or sleeping outside at any given time; and having people in their Sunday best walk past made-shift sidewalk sleeping bags on a stroll to a live-recording of ‘A Prairie Home Companion‘ or the Children’s Museum made people very, veryuncomfortable.

More times than not, the place would make me feel uncomfortable too. It’d often spill out over into the hotel lobby. Homeless people would sneak into the lobby bathroom, and it was not a rare occurrence that I’d have to stop someone from washing their armpits out in the sink. One homeless man defecated on the floor. That, and it was always battle to stop panhandlers at the front entrance. Police calls, while not commonplace, weren’t exactly rare.

It was a constant battle that I found it endlessly annoying, and I think the Downtown St. Paul community feels exactly the same way.

Here’s the elephant in the room: the Dorothy Day Center is a “gift and a curse”. It provides much needed services: hot meals, health services and a temporary bed for those most in need. Yet, it is viewed by most as an uncomfortable eyesore and an impediment to downtown development.

According to the Pioneer Press,

” …  St. Paul’s largest emergency overnight shelter hosts up to 250 homeless men and women each night … The existing site, which opened in 1981 as a day facility for 30 to 50 clients, has become dangerously overcrowded. Meanwhile, annual counts show homelessness in Minnesota is on the rise.” – Pioneer Press (1/02/14)

Should the Dorothy Day Center Relocate? I think there is a compelling case to why it should move. And, in reality, there isn’t much opposition to relocating Dorothy Day facilities [map: proposed relocation]. A new facility, one that mirrors Minneapolis’ efforts on long-term apartments, would be a good move. However, the move also seems unnecessary and it might be better to concentrate all facilities along W. 7th Street, near the existing facility.

In a criticism similar to that of the Saints Stadium, the process has had too little public input (Pioneer Press, 1/5/13). This trend needs to slow, and public engagement needs to be more proactive. In an effort to aid the conversation, I’m compiled a list of pro’s and con’s to the relocation:


  • New Facility: A new, more modern facility that includes transitional and long-term apartment units would be beneficial to the homeless population. The existing facility is small and needs other improvements. This benefit cannot be understated.
  • Redevelopment [W. 7th]: The visibility of Dorothy Day in a prominent location in downtown St. Paul hurts the redevelopment opportunities across from the Xcel Energy Center. People feel uncomfortable around homeless people and developing office, residential or retail space is unlikely until relocation. The “2nd Phase” of the development will be long-term apartments and stay near the W. 7th site.
  • Better Location? [Lafayette]: The proposed relocation site is dominated by local and state government office space. These tenants are not likely to abandon space due to increased proximity to a homeless shelter.
  • Police Department, Regions Hospital, and New Mental Health Facilities: Having closer proximity to police and hospital facilities may be beneficial for public health and public safety reasons.
  • According to Mayor Chris Coleman, homeless and those getting services at Dorothy Day, “felt like they were on display there and they were uncomfortable with that location. We want to make it very clear that we aren’t trying to stuff our homeless in the corner somewhere, but do what is in the best interests of the clients that we’re serving.”– Star Tribune, (12/20/14)


  • Cost: Relocating facilities is likely to cost more money. Each dollar spent on developing a site is a dollar not spent on care. This needs to be an important part of the conversation. The cost is estimated to be approximately $63 million (from private and public sources).
  • Redevelopment [W. 7th]: On the record, this is not part of the conversation. Off the record, it is the elephant in the room. If relocated, would private development occur? I am not optimistic. Apartments wedged between a hockey arena and an interstate, and along two busy roads, would be a tough sell to developers; and the office space market is weak and doesn’t justify new space. However, it should be noted that I do hope I am wrong.
  • Out of Sight, Out of Mind?: Oddly, having homeless people visible has its benefits. Income inequality is alive and well in our society, and pushing it outside, no matter how noble the cause, may not be in our society’s best interest. As uncomfortable as it makes us feel, we must acknowledge that it exists.
  • Transit: The proposed redevelopment area is less connected to local transit options (including the proposed streetcar line). This is a secondary concern, but should be considered in the decision-making process.
  • Overburdening the East Side?: Residents near the proposed site believe their neighborhood hosts a disproportionate amount of the city services, including the jail and detox clinic. Residents believe “cramming too many needy people into a handful of city blocks will hurt, not help, the poor” (Pioneer Press, 1/5/14). That’s a little misleading. I don’t think it’ll have a big effect on the poor themselves, but it’ll likely affect neighborhood perception negatively.

The Dorothy Day Center  is an asset to the City of St. Paul. It always has been. The expansion should be a welcome addition. However, I want us to be making this decision for the right reasons, and not because we feel uncomfortable with Dorothy Day in its existing location. Although it hasn’t been part of the conversation, the redevelopment of the large surface parking lot across from the hockey arena is most certainly on people’s minds.

The current concentration of homeless that the building attracts can be intimidating and it is certainly unpleasant. As someone who worked in the area, I can certainly attest to that. Yet, I also think that the redevelopment potential for the site is overstated.

Should the Dorothy Day Center relocate or expand on it’s existing site? In my mind, there is no right answer.

13 thoughts on “Should The Dorothy Day Center Relocate?

  1. Julie

    The East Side has cheap land for development. But I think the NIMBY crowd count very heavily on the populace of the East Side not being vocal about “why are you putting all this here? Is it so that your Mac-Groveland voters can not see them?” It’s a nasty combo, because realistically the reason everything of this nature is proposed for the East Side is to segregate it into a part of the city everyone feels is somehow dreadful.

    The East Side is by no means as dire as some people seem to think it is. There are a few blocks that are pretty questionable, but it’s mostly just people trying to get by and do the right stuff. And give me the Mounds Park fireworks viewing over the hot mess that is Harriet Island — so long as you don’t fear people who aren’t white, it’s glorious fun. And the tamale cart is awesome.

    1. Nathaniel

      With the relocation, it should be noted that the “phase 2” part of the development still calls for apartment and long-term units to be around the W. 7th (existing) site. There will be a lot of neighborhood politics that play out. The East Side does have that wrap and a lot of unwarranted stigma is placed upon it; yet it’s hard to imagine a better ‘alternative’ location to the existing one that isn’t Lafayette. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. And hopefully there is more neighborhood engagement.

  2. Jim

    I recall that Target took a look at the surface lot across from the Xcel years ago. Sherman Assoc. considered building a mixed use retail and hotel development. I think a hotel there would do quite well. But it is tough to imagine it happening so long as several hundred homeless are just a stones throw away.

    Critics have offered up sites like the Ford land. That’s worth considering, but you only have so much prime development land in St. Paul. You could build the shelter along Ford Pkwy. But wouldn’t you rather have office space, retail, high end apartments generating big taxes there instead? You aren’t going to build million dollar mansions of luxury apartment over on the east side or next to SPPD HQ’s. So use that land for the tax exempt homeless shelters.

    1. Nathaniel

      It’s hard to imagine private development going to that site without heavy subsidies because of a few factors, one of them being the homeless population. Interesting regarding tax exempt land, and I hadn’t considered that. I wouldn’t say the W. 7th St location is bad, nor the Lafayette (east downtown) any better / worse – It’s a wash in my opinion. Ideally, I’d like to have good services for the homeless with decent access to transit. Thanks for commenting.

      1. Julie Kosbab

        I think the Ford land is a complete red herring. When you talk about non-profit development, a SuperFund site has baggage and costs that aren’t realistic.

        Sure, it will have to be cleaned up anyway, but I can’t see that land ending up under a non-profit.

        1. Janne Flisrand

          In Hennepin County (which I know does not include St. Paul), developers of affordable housing often get grants to clean up brownfields. Well-located affordable housing on a SuperFund site might be nore marketable than luxury condos on a SuperFund site…

          As someone who reviews affordable housing proposals annually, I certainly can see some of that Ford land ending up under a non-profit or for-profit if it is used for an affordable housing development. It fits with City and State policy priorities. (Homeless shelter? Not so much.)

          1. Nathaniel

            The Ford site should have some affordable housing. Adding to the mix you required earlier, I think it’d be a great location. I know PPL has a new emergency shelter / long-term stay location at the bottom of Snelling and W. 7th. It seems to be going well there, too (just need some sidewalks on Snelling now)

  3. Janne Flisrand

    The research on “concentrations of poverty,” which you quoted the Pioneer Press described as saying “cramming too many needy people into a handful of city blocks will hurt, not help, the poor” is pretty clear. It really IS bad for the people who live there.

    In areas of concentrated poverty, there is less political well to address real issues of crime and poor education and good transit. There is less access to the social networks which is how people most often find good jobs. And you mentioned the very real problem of reduced access to transit, critical to people working to stabilize their lives. (That would also argue against the Ford site.)

    The more “undesirable” uses you cram into a place, the harder it is to make that place desirable, and in my opinion, policymakers have the responsibility to make every neighborhood in Minneapolis and St. Paul desirable.

    There is need for much more supportive, long-term housing for the folks currently using Dorothy Day. I would argue for spreading it around several neighborhoods, as it is in downtown Minneapolis and surrounding neighborhoods. There is economy of scale providing services in a limited number of locations, but it also limits access to jobs and neighborhood choice, something I think everyone should have a bit of.

    1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

      Thanks for inserting some knowledge on the subject. It should be noted that if the relocation (of day-to-day facilities) moves to Layfatteye, there will still be apartments (similar to Higher Ground in Minneapolis) at the West 7th St. site. In that regard, there is a little separation.

      I do agree that spreading it around might be the best way to do it (although likely more difficult to do logistically for the organization). Whatever the case, I think transit must be part of the equation. The Lafayette site isn’t as well connected as West 7th; but it’s also not too out of the way. West 7th St (for transit sake) is the better option there.

      However, that being said, I do not know the development logistics and possibilities on either site. I just don’t want us to make a decision where “let’s move homeless people” is a central argument. We need to do what is right and will maximize our ability to help the most people.

      Also – on a final note – I hope the City takes an extra step to address and talk to (with a healthy back-and-forth relationship) neighbors living in both areas.

      1. Julie Kosbab

        The East Side site is in a transit desert. See also Nick’s post “Embarrassed by the Bus.”

        There may be a site with merit in the Central Corridor that isn’t downtown, potentially near Frogtown or Midway. I suspect “homeless services” is a non-conforming use for a site, however. On the other hand, it wouldn’t necessarily require a ton of parking.

  4. Janne Flisrand

    Nick, I agree that discussion would be healthy. I’d also note that NIMBY will be powerful no matter what location is selected, and is probably the reason this hasn’t been addressed earlier — I fear the discussion would simply halt any project.

    Julie, I’d note that Frogtown is also an area of concentrated poverty. I’m no zoning expert, but I bet the use isn’t “homeless services,” but rather “office, social service” and/or “multifamily housing, mixed-use.” Probably not as non-conforming as it seems.

  5. Charles

    This is a great article. However, there is a right answer: the center should be relocated. As a resident of downtown, I cannot go anywhere without being hassled by a homeless person. Most are just drug addicts, some are dealers, and some make up elaborate stories in an attempt to swindle people out of money. It’s disgusting. One of them even pulled a knife on me once. Only a very small percentage of these people truly are down and out and deserve help. The rest are animals and they are ruining St. Paul. They have to move the Dorothy Day Center.

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