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After doubling capacity during COVID, Project Home seeks new home for homeless families by St. Kate’s

18January 2021

Shana Arias works with her children Antonio, 10, and Athena, 6, bottom, as they attend school online in the temporary housing provided by Project Home in downtown St. Paul, Jan. 11, 2021. Project Home provides accommodations for single women with young kids, and is run by Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Shana Arias never expected to be homeless at 32, let alone with three young children in tow. After being laid off as a restaurant cook, Arias lost her Vadnais Heights home and mostly lived out of her car, leaving her little ones with her father at night.

In a moment of desperation, her fiancé — who lives with and cares for his mother — stepped into a church and begged for help on her behalf. Fighting embarrassment, Arias and her three children were quickly placed in a budget motel, where they stayed from March until August.

She was grateful for the space, though the knocks at the door from gentlemen looking for “women who probably work the night” could be unsettling, she said. “We’d be like, ‘Wrong door!’ ”

Toward summer’s end, Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul moved Arias and her kids into a sizable room at the Hotel 340, a boutique hotel near the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul.

For Arias, the boost from Interfaith Action’s Project Home program has been a godsend, allowing her to stay with her kids and provide them with a safe space to concentrate on their remote schooling throughout the pandemic. All three — Athena, 6, Antonio, 10, and Eris, 13 — are in accelerated classes.

There are curfews, restrictions on visitors and other rules to follow, and she misses having a kitchen, but the free accommodations and three healthy meals a day have made a tough time less stressful. If she can work around school schedules, she hopes to be back in the workforce by March.

The tent community recently cleared from Kellogg Mall Park, just a few blocks away, looms in her thoughts. “It makes you really grateful,” Arias said.

PROJECT HOME MOVING TO RANDOLPH AVENUE

For 20 years, Project Home has arranged cots and blankets in schools and church basements to house homeless families at night and then transported their clients to day shelters in the morning.

The pandemic — and an influx of state and federal emergency relief funding — spurred a significant expansion of its services, which used to support 10 to 12 families at a time, or up to 40 people. These days, they serve upward of 20 families or as many as 83 people at once.

All have at least one minor child in their care, about 90 percent of them under the age of 12.

The goal is to keep up momentum and lease space for 20 to 30 families at a long-vacant nun’s dorm on Randolph Avenue owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Located by St. Catherine University at the border of the Highland Park and Mac-Groveland neighborhoods, the four-story Provincial House dormitory could house the program for a year, or longer.

The aim is to have the space ready for client families — mostly women with small children, and some two-parent families, a few single dads — by March. During a recent community town hall to discuss the shelter opening, some neighborhood residents questioned why the accommodations couldn’t open sooner.

“At the drop of a hat, you can’t just open a shelter in a neighborhood,” said Sara Liegl, who has run Project Home for 20 years. “We wanted to have these neighborhood meetings first and also prep the building, which is in really good shape for being underutilized for a decade.”

During the Jan. 5 townhall, some elderly residents said they looked forward to seeing kids move into the neighborhood, and others said they were familiar with Project Home through their church and had held babies in their arms during volunteer shifts, which they were eager to do again.

“There was a massive YIMBY (yes in my backyard) response,” said Joe Nathan, a Highland Park resident and longtime advocate for increasing educational opportunities for children. “More than 150 people joined the Zoom meeting, (and) 95 percent said ‘Yes, this project should happen.’ … We as community members embrace this.”

Out of roughly 20 or so public letters to the city’s zoning committee, only one was opposed outright, Liegl said, with the letter writer raising concern that female students from St. Kate’s would be mugged by homeless parents on their way to class.

Liegl, who has operated Project Home since 2001, said with a chuckle that the program has already operated in the neighborhood for years, working through various schools and churches without incident — Cretin-Derham Hall High School, Gloria Dei Lutheran and Messiah Episcopal among them.

Project Home’s overnight program is almost entirely volunteer-driven, with most volunteers being in their 60s.

“We have two full-time interns from St. Kate’s who come to work with us year-round,” Liegl said. “We do background checks on all the adults in the families.”

A non-violent felony conviction would not necessarily bar a client from moving in, though a violent felony within the past 10 years, a sex offense on record or an open warrant for arrest would.

“The few folks who are speaking out against this project, they don’t really know we’ve already been in the neighborhood for over 20 years,” Liegl said. “You probably haven’t heard of us because we don’t cause a commotion.”

25 FAMILIES ON WAITLIST

Shana Arias works on math with her daughter Athena, 6, in the temporary housing provided by Project Home in downtown St. Paul. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Most families are referred to Project Home through Ramsey County and United Way 211, and the county’s Coordinated Access to Housing and Shelter program helps with housing matches. “A big part of our job is scouring for landlords who keep reasonable rates,” Liegl said.

Most families are eager to move out into their own apartments; the average length of stay is 43 days.

In early January, Ramsey County’s open data portal showed 25 families on a waitlist for emergency housing, and that number can climb into the 80s in the summer months.

Some could be placed through Interfaith Action or other groups, such as the new Voices of East African Women’s shelter on Selby Avenue. The Mosaic Christian Community on Wheelock Parkway in St. Paul allows homeless families to sleep in their cars on their lot.

“We don’t believe families should have to be sitting on waitlists to get into emergency shelter,” Liegl said. “Just in the last month we had one family who came in from the encampments. Another, she was staying in her car with her two little ones at night.”

Project Home works closely with each family to match them to steady employment and public assistance.

Liegl recalled a family that arrived destitute and was not aware they could sign up for MFIP, the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which provides up to 60 months of cash and food assistance to the working poor. “They didn’t even know what it was,” she said.

LEASE NEGOTIATIONS, ZONING UNDERWAY

Lease negotiations between Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul and the Sisters of St. Joseph are still underway. The city is expected to award a conditional use permit in February.

The Provincial House has been underused for 10 years and still needs new kitchen floor tile, an oven hood, an independent security system and modern emergency alarm escape bars on the fire escape doors.

The building, which is somewhat narrow, features a top floor with floor-to-ceiling windows that flood a big open area with natural light. Liegl foresees creating a children’s space with a computer area for distance learning, a toddler corner and other amenities.

“It’s really beautiful,” Liegl said. “We’re really excited about how just in general, it’s really family friendly.”

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