In the late Spring of 2007, I was riding my bicycle in Dartt’s Park when I came upon a man who was sitting on a bench, there. In spite of his full beard, I recognized him as a former sixth grade student of mine and asked him what he was doing at Dartt’s Park. “I live here,” he said. Needless to say, I was dumfounded.
Investigating my student’s circumstances further, I came to learn there were other people who used local parks as places to live. For me, this was ‘new’ news, as I had not encountered homeless people in Owatonna’s parks, or under bridges, as was the case in larger communities.
It was an awakening, call it a spiritual awakening, that caused me to reach out to local agencies that served families who needed assistance – our local food shelf, Clothesline, where people in need could obtain clothing, Habitat for Humanity, and our local transitional housing agency – all not-for-profit organizations and all non-governmental units.
I called these people and others together to discuss homelessness in Owatonna. One, the pastor at First Baptist Church, was very explicit when we talked numbers: He said there were anywhere from 200-300 homeless people ‘living’ in Owatonna on any day. Our small group was taken aback with this data. “Where were they,” we asked. “We don’t see them.” we said.
I called another meeting of our group, now widened to include a variety of people from various walks of life – all showing a good deal concern for the ‘problem’ of homelessness in Owatonna.
We were joined in our meeting by representatives from Diocese of Winona/Rochester Catholic Charities, a group for which I served as a Board member and Board Chair. The representatives told us about the two houses that provided housing for homeless people in Winona, MN, and which worked independently of governmental agencies.
In subsequent meetings, our group decided to model our efforts after the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality, which Dorothy Day founded in New York City in the 1930s. Organizing our efforts in this tradition meant that we would strive to exist on the benefaction of people, not from governmental agencies.
We also decided to narrow our focus to homeless men. We were aware that a number of detainees released from the Steele County Detention Center had no place to go. Returning to their home area was not an option as they would likely end up on the other side of the law, again. The group also decided to consider, in keeping with the Catholic Worker Movement Houses of Hospitality to call our effort, Hospitality House of Owatonna.
One difficult aspect of our work was to determine whether or not we should become a bonafide not-for-profit entity, which would allow our benefactors to claim any of their monetary and in-kind donations on their income tax returns. It was a contentious debate that ensued for many weeks.
Some wanted Hospitality House to follow the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker model and exist purely on the generosity of benefactors. Others believed that becoming a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation would allow benefactors to realize a deduction for their monetary support. Having the designation would also allow The Board to seek funding from non-governmental granting agencies such as the Owatonna Foundation, Otto Bremer Foundation, etc. A majority of the Board decided for the application process, which is in place, today. Thus, we have both federal and State ID numbers and a set of organizational by-laws.
In 2008 a member of the group offered a facility he had purchased for the group’s use, as a rental. The property, located on State Avenue, Owatonna, was a former cottage of the “State School.” It was outfitted with donated furnishings and the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer were stocked with donated food, both canned goods and perishables, from supportive people, including restaurants and grocery outlets. The House was able to accommodate five men, but during the Winter months, that number could swell to a dozen. We crossed our fingers that no disaster would befall the structure as egress from the basement was but from a single stairwell. But, we had a place to call home – which, by the way, was what we decided to call our facility. As our guests had their own beds, had an address to use for job applications, etc., lived in community with other homeless men, a homelike atmosphere was created – far different from what might be seen as a ‘homeless shelter.’
While all this was underway, The Board created ‘House Rules,’ which mandated who would be allowed residence and who wouldn’t. Those who were active drug or alcohol users would not be admitted. Certain felons were not admitted. Those with arrest warrants were not admitted. It was important for the facility to not be a blight on the neighborhood or the community-at-large.
Those who found a place to live were men who had fallen on hard times. The Board and Staff make no judgments about their status. We serve only to assist the men to regain a sense of former status within their families and communities.
In 2009, a new facility was found, and occupancy ensued. Located at 250 East Main Street in Owatonna, Hospitality House of Owatonna, Inc. was now in a facility that allowed for more guests (17) and accoutrements that maintained the concept of a “home.”
As of this writing, Hospitality House of Owatonna, Inc. continues to rely on the generosity of donors both large and small and does not accept any financial support from taxing entities.
By: Peter W. Connor
Convener and Founding Board Member
Hospitality House of Owatonna, Inc.