A small child walks by a church holding her dad’s hand.
“That was a nice bed we had last night,” she tells him. “Where are we going to sleep tonight?”
“I don’t know,” her dad says.
The conversation was overheard not long ago by Susan Vento, who works at Assumption Church in downtown St. Paul, just a stone’s throw from Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center, where thousands of homeless people go each year for basic needs, like a place to sleep for the night.
It’s the kind of conversation that breaks your heart. No child — indeed, no one at all — should have to worry about whether they will sleep on the street because they have no bed and no home to sleep in.
Vento’s experience was one of the stories — some sad, some inspiring — told during a breakfast May 2 commemorating the center’s 31 years of service to the community’s poor and homeless. Mayor Chris Coleman was in attendance and read a proclamation declaring it Dorothy Day Center Day in the City of St. Paul.
The need for the center after three decades is as great as ever and, sadly, is even increasing.
Meeting the need
After Archbishop John Nienstedt offered an opening prayer, speakers like former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer talked about the center’s history, including how it began in the early 1980s, during another recession, thanks to the collaborative efforts of church, city and business leaders who refused to turn a blind eye to the growing numbers of people in need of assistance.
Doug Baker, CEO of Ecolab and the morning’s keynote speaker, noted the intentional decision the leaders made to put the Dorothy Day Center in the middle of town so the challenge of poverty wouldn’t be hidden away in a corner of the community — out of sight and out of mind.
It’s a decision that still carries an important message. “We can’t live in glass towers” and ignore what else goes on in the community, said Baker, whose Ecolab employees — many of whom work downtown — are among the center’s volunteers.
The dedication of the center’s staff and volunteers has been steady over the years, but much has changed as well, including the types of services offered.
On its first day three decades ago, the Dorothy Day Center served coffee and day-old rolls to 50 men. Today, it provides hot meals, mental health services and medical care to more than 6,000 clients annually. While chemical dependency and mental illness are associated with homelessness, clients coming to the center today often don’t fit the stereotypes associated homeless. They are once-properous individuals and families who have fallen on hard times because of the faltering economy and housing foreclosure crisis.
One of the people who helped lay the foundation for the center attended the breakfast — Msgr. Jerome Boxleitner, a former executive director of Catholic Charities. While reminiscing about the center’s history, he also reminded those in attendance that simple charity isn’t enough.
Feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless are extremely important, he said, but we must also work for justice, including public policies that can help put an end to the spiraling cycle of poverty once and for all — efforts that all too often seem “muted these days.”
If you’re willing to speak up and take action to help end homelessness, Catholic Charities has a few ideas that it listed in handouts distributed at the end of breakfast. Among the suggestions:
• Keep the conversation alive: When you share a meal with people you respect, ask them about the homeless in the community. What are the community’s values regarding how the homeless are helped back to self-sufficiency wherever self-sufficiency is possible?
• Advocate: Help build support for programs that provide permanent solutions for homelessness by contacting Catholic Charities’ Office for Social Justice at email@example.com or 612-204-8393.
• Don’t blink: Even if you don’t give money to a person who is begging, you can recognize their humanity by smiling and wishing them a good day. Remember, sometimes people sitting next to you at school or waiting on you at a restaurant are experiencing homelessness.
• Be a catalyst: Educate and encourage community groups, congregations and workplaces to address the issue.
• Volunteer: Connect with Catholic Charities at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-204-8435.
• Pray: Keep the needs of the poor and vulnerable in your thoughts and prayers.