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Washington County church to offer county's first homeless shelter

Denny Farrell was well aware of the homeless population in Washington County.

So when three Guardian Angels Catholic Church members who hoped to bring a shelter to the church approached Farrell -- the parish administrator and longtime volunteer with Twin Cities-based homeless organizations -- he was all ears.

"I totally understood what was happening," he said.

The effort got immediate traction at the church and the surrounding faith community.

Now organizers at Guardian Angels are eyeing a Sept. 3 date to open the only homeless shelter in Washington County. 

Guardian Angels -- an Oakdale church that counts more than half of its parishioners as Woodbury residents -- is readying its former rectory to serve up to six families a night, 365 days a year through the pilot program.

"They deserve a place to live and it's our responsibility to help them out," said Woodbury resident Sally Krupich, one of the three women who organized the shelter program.

The program is "hugely important," said David Browne, chairman of Heading Home Washington, an organization tasked with ending homelessness in the county.

He said that while the shelter -- which he believes to be the only one of its kind in Washington County -- will provide safe harbor for struggling families, more needs to be done to end homelessness.

"If you create a resource for homeless individuals or families, you begin to see the scope of the problem," he said.

The shelter, to be named Hope for the Journey Home, will be open from mid-afternoons to mornings. The idea is to give families a comfortable place to stay at nights. Meals will also be served.

The shelter will work hand-in-glove with St. Andrews Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi.

"They were really the catalyst," Krupich said.

St. Andrews offers a day program for homeless families and, until recently, had been able to place those families overnight at a motel.

But after remodeling at the motel interrupted the program, the church was forced to look elsewhere.

Enter: Guardian Angels.

Krupich and others caught wind of the situation with the St. Andrews program and considered the rectory building.

The seven-room building for years housed nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame. As they aged, the nuns moved on, with the last one moving out in 2011.

Meanwhile, the nearly 7,000-square-foot building sat empty while St. Andrews was in search of an emergency shelter for its program.

So the thought occurred to Krupich and others: "Why not turn it into a homeless shelter," she said.

As the pieces came together, Farrell couldn't help but sense a rush of serendipity at play.

"That house became empty right when there was a need," he said. "Maybe there was a reason why."

The ball got rolling this spring after Krupich and two other Guardian Angels members, Marla Simmet and Karen Fitzpatrick, took the project's reins.

The motel situation was functional, Krupich said, "but it's not very home-like," so they sought -- and got -- permission from church leaders to pursue the project.

Providing that home-like experience was all but guaranteed. It was just a matter of outfitting it with new furnishings.

All seven rooms at the shelter will come equipped with beds, dressers and desks. There will be a playroom in the basement for children. The basement will also house the kitchen, which is being upgraded with new appliances. Laundry facilities will also be available at the shelter.

"It's got really everything they need," Farrell said.

Funding for the Guardian Angels program comes from multiple sources, including St. Andrews, where dollars originally set aside to pay for the motel program are being redirected. Those funds now go toward use of the parish house.

The program has also received funds from donors -- both inside and outside the church -- and looks to raise more money through grant applications.

Food for the shelter will be provided by volunteers. The hunger relief organization Second Harvest has agreed to provide food when supplies run low, Krupich said.

When Krupich put out the call for help from other churches in the area, she didn't know what response she would get. She had mailed out 115 letters and asked interested churches to attend a meeting.

To Krupich's relief, about 40 churches arrived at the meeting.

"We were really happy with that," she said.

Most of the churches pledged to help and will fill a critical role: staffing.

Plans call for one church to organize volunteers for a whole week. Those volunteers -- Krupich estimates it will take up to 45 people a week -- will bring food, prepare food and serve it to guests at the shelter.

They will work alongside one paid employee, whose job will be to welcome volunteers, ensure the shelter is prepped for the day and to have guests sign a contract of conduct upon entry.

Shelter guests arrive at 3 p.m. and leave by 9 a.m. Students will be bused to and from school, while parents are driven back to St. Andrews, where they can spend the day.

The program is modeled after a similar one in St. Paul called Project Home.

"I know all about a model like this," Farrell said, noting that he has been a board member on the Minneapolis-based Families Moving Forward program and that Guardian Angels has been a participating member of Project Home.

Who will come?

Homelessness does exist in the county, though it might not be as visible as it is in inner-city settings.

"It's Woodbury, it's people in Oakdale, it's Maplewood ... " Farrell said. "There is a problem in Washington County."

A survey conducted by Browne's agency provides a snapshot of homelessness in Washington County.

According to the most recent data collected in 2011, there were 245 homeless people in Washington County.

"There's a phenomenal need," Krupich said, noting that St. Andrews has to turn away 14 families a week.

And the need is growing, she said.

Data shows Washington County homelessness was up about 13 percent last year over 2010 figures. The biggest increase was among those classified as chronically homeless; that number grew by 125 percent, according to the survey.

Farrell has a closer experience with the issue than most. He said his brother has been homeless for years.

"It goes to my core," he said.

Organizers of Hope for the Journey Home plan to run the pilot program for a year.

What comes after that remains to be seen, but Farrell and others hope it has found a permanent home at Guardian Angels.

"We're hoping we can grow this," he said.

The commitment from Guardian Angels parishioners also has been heartening, Krupich said. After a call went out to organize committees, she watched as dozens of members filled a meeting looking to help.

"I absolutely got tears in my eyes watching those people streaming in," she said.

Farrell agreed.

"With this groundswell, I can't see us not continuing it," he said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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