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Storm led homeless day center to stay open all night

Catholic Charities Opportunity Center kept its doors open 36 hours straight as other homeless day centers closed in during the storm.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Normally the people experiencing homelessness who come to the Saint Paul Opportunity Center have to leave at night, but the brutal blast of winter Wednesday night prompted a decision to keep the doors open 36 hours straight.

It was a response, in part to the fact that several other drop-in centers in St. Paul decided to close for the storm. And the shuttle services between various service centers were also down because of the blizzard.

"The amount of services being provided, the amount of people seeking shelter and services is very much felt and seen here because other temporary daytime and overnight services have been shut down due to the weather," Wendy Underwood, the vice president of social justice advocacy and engagement for Catholic Charities Twin Cities, told KARE.

The Opportunity Center's partners, including Ramsey County, pitched in to help with the unprecedented all-nighter at the day center.

"What happened was a lot of their regulars came over to us because we were the only drop-in center that were still open because of the blizzard," Raven Davis, the center's supervisor explained.

"We’ve put on some movies, did some extra coloring and some activities, and got some volunteers in here to help spread out folks to keep things happy."

Ramsey County Sheriff's Office deputies also provided transportation to those who wanted to leave to go to overnight shelter spaces they had secured.

"The sheriffs have helped, to take a couple at a time to transport them through the blizzard. Also, with us open we’re able to give them the option to say, 'Hey, if you don’t want to leave you can come and stay and hang out with us'."

Food services worker Michael Campbell could immediately tell the difference between Thursday morning and most winter days.

"This morning we fed 265 people and that’s a record so far for breakfast this week," Campbell told KARE.

Food and a chance to get out of the cold are just part of the services homeless persons receive at the Opportunity Center, which is run by Catholic Charities with the assistance of Ramsey County and other partners.

"During the day we provide showers, meals, laundry, mail, and try to have activities like drawing, painting, movies, things like that to keep people entertained," Pheadra Johnson, an assessment specialist, told KARE.

"It's not only for mental health services but just in general to make people feel like someone cares, someone’s here to help them."

The demand for homeless services continues to rise, but the special federal COVID relief funding that helped pay the bills during the pandemic is vanishing.

Senator Scott Dibble and Rep. Heather Keeler have introduced the Pathway Home bill that would set aside $150 million to expand the network of shelter and emergency day centers, and provide permanent, ongoing state funding to pay for the services they provided.

"The people needing those services have not gone away with the pandemic," Underwood explained.

"And if anything, the challenges of the pandemic are now hitting the folks we serve even more, which is why we’re seeing increased numbers of people in our daytime and overnight shelters, with increased challenges and needs."

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