When Robert Miller had nowhere else to go, a resource center on the edge of downtown Minneapolis offered a lifeline — helping him find an apartment and providing support at a desperate time.
That lifeline, the Mary F. Frey Opportunity Center, is the only day-services center of its kind in Minneapolis, providing free meals, showers and resources for about 800 people a month. But leaders of Catholic Charities Twin Cities, which runs the center, say it may close this summer if legislators don't approve more state funding for homeless services statewide.
"This is like a second home for a lot of people," said Miller, 61, a retired construction worker from Texas. "This is the only place that has the resources you need."
Minnesota nonprofits are pressing lawmakers to appropriate more than $200 million for homeless shelters across the state. Those dollars are included in the House health and human services budget bill, but a $150 million chunk is left out of the Senate version.
While Democrats control the Legislature and governor's office, key differences remain in the 2024 budgets proposed by the House, Senate and Gov. Tim Walz, and will need to be negotiated in the session's final weeks. Given the state's projected $17.5 billion budget surplus, some contend it's time to tackle the significant needs related to homelessness.
"We should be ... making sure that everybody has access to a home, and that starts with saving their lives through shelter," said Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead, who sponsored the "Pathway Home" bill that included various funds for homeless services. The House passed the bill two months ago but it stalled in the Senate.
"I'm really just extremely disappointed that the Senate didn't find this a priority earlier in session," Keeler said.
Senate Health and Human Services Chair Melissa Wiklund, DFL-Bloomington, said in a statement that both the House and Senate health and human services bills contain "exciting proposals" and that she looked forward to ensuring "the final bill addresses the needs of Minnesotans."
The House included many items from the "Pathway Home" bill in its health and human services budget bill, including more than $150 million over the next two years for emergency shelter grants to buy, build, renovate and equip emergency shelters. The Senate budget doesn't include the funding, while Walz included $86 million for the grants in his infrastructure spending package.
The House health and human services measure also designates an additional $40 million next year, and more starting in fiscal 2026, for the state's emergency services program. That program offers grants to organizations that serve people who are homeless. The Senate budget increases funding for the program by less than $9 million.
There is also more money in the House bill for people 24 or younger who are homeless, and on housing for sexually exploited youth.
'The demand is there'
Minnesota lawmakers are considering many provisions this year to help people afford housing. Earlier this session they approved $50 million for the state's Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program to support services and provide financial assistance, helping families cover costs like rent deposits or utility payments.
But advocates fear money specifically for homeless shelters might be insufficient.
Matt Traynor of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless said funding preventative measures like the assistance program but not shelters is like trying to cure cancer while telling people with the disease they're out of luck.
Increased shelter funding could help Partners for Housing in Mankato to boost the number of emergency shelter beds in southern Minnesota. The nonprofit operates three emergency shelters and plans to build a fourth to meet the growing need for housing.
"The demand is there," said Trisha Anderson, the nonprofit's executive director. "In order for us to continue to meet the need to help guide people toward housing stability, we need more funding."
In the Twin Cities, Catholic Charities operates four emergency shelters along with two day centers in St. Paul and Minneapolis that provide meals and services to low-income and unhoused people when shelters close during the day.
The Frey Center, named after a local philanthropist, receives no state funding and was at risk of closing this winter until Hennepin County provided a one-time $200,000 grant. Like other nonprofits, Catholic Charities saw a surge in generosity at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but a decline in donations since then, even as the need for food and housing assistance — and the costs to run those programs — have risen.
"It's the worst trifecta," said Keith Kozerski, Catholic Charities' chief program officer. "These are the most vulnerable in our community. If they can't get a meal here, the chances that they end up on Nicollet [Avenue and] panhandling goes up."
Catholic Charities, which has 25 programs and a $53.5 million annual budget, requested $10 million from the Minnesota Department of Human Services — a significant hike from the $200,000 it usually receives annually. If legislators don't boost the Human Services budget, Catholic Charities leaders say they won't be able to keep open the Frey Center on donations alone and may have to close it this summer.
"There's this assumption these services are paid by someone, but they're not," said Wendy Underwood, who leads Catholic Charities' advocacy work. "We need help."
On Wednesday, medical personnel administered COVID vaccines while employees dished out chili dogs, salad and chips to about 100 people. Employment Specialist Mekka Clark was helping clients find utility subsidies or a job.
"My community will suffer," she said of the Frey Center's possible closure.
About 700 people collect their mail at the center, listing it as their permanent address for vital resources like food stamps. A free weekly clinic provides foot care.
"For a majority of our clients, their feet is their transportation," said Femi Ogun, the Frey Center's program manager. "A lot of our clients depend on this place."
Miller was grappling with drug addiction when he moved from Texas to Minnesota in 2017. He sought refuge in Catholic Charities' Higher Ground shelter, and the Frey Center helped him land on his feet. Now healthy and living in an apartment of his own, Miller stops by the center to play dominoes with friends who have similar success stories.
"This place has been a blessing for me," he said. "This is the heart of the community. People need this place."