Simpson will build new supportive housing beyond urban core

Sidestepping controversy about too many facilities in inner-city neighborhoods, a dynamic new director plans south-side or suburban development

Simpson Housing Services is expanding beyond its traditional emergency shelter and transitional housing programs into permanent supportive housing for families, said Jim Smith, a former priest and the organization’s new executive director.

Simpson, 2740 1st Ave. S., is working with Community Housing Development Corp., the non-profit development arm of Brighton Development, to build a 20-unit housing development, he said. Ideally, they would start construction by year’s end.

"If all goes well, we would like to continue in this direction," said Smith, a Lyndale resident.

Simpson has neither a housing site nor a budget for its first project yet, but one thing is clear: It won’t build in Simpson’s own Whittier neighborhood or the city’s inner ring, he said.

The decision reflects recent neighborhood tension over supportive housing, Smith said. The Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation is developing Lydia Apartments, 1920 LaSalle Ave., a 40-unit permanent supportive-housing program for single people that is located in the nearby Stevens Square/Loring Heights neighborhood.

The Whittier and Stevens Square neighborhood organizations strongly opposed the Lydia project, saying their neighborhoods have too many supportive-housing programs. Program advocates said the tenants would benefit from the proximity to services and public transportation.

Simpson is eying south Minneapolis, Richfield, St. Louis Park, New Brighton and Edina for its first project, Smith said.

Unlike shelters or transitional housing, long-term supportive housing has no time limits for tenants. It provides an apartment with services — such as mental health services or employment coaching — to help stabilize people’s lives.

Smith said long-term supportive housing is cheaper in the long run than having people continuously cycle through homeless shelters and transitional housing programs. Wendy Wiegmann, director of transitional housing, will spearhead Simpson’s permanent housing effort.

Simpson is expanding its services during tight fiscal times, however. It has a $1.5 million annual budget and employs 28 full- and part-time staff.

Former executive director Giff Jamison said Simpson’s revenue is half public, half private. Some public funds — such as the $75,000 Simpson received last year for "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families" — is welfare reform money that is running out and won’t be renewed, he said.

Private donations are a bigger concern because philanthropy follows the economy, Jamison said.

"When dividends are down, there is not as much to pass out," he said. "It does not alter our picture of the future. Homelessness is not going away. Things are going to get worse for people on the bottom."

A fundraising knack

Smith comes to Simpson with a track record of raising money and a passion for helping homeless people. Smith, who had been a priest for 15 years, led two capital campaigns at Transfiguration Catholic Church in Oakdale, the parish he served the past eight years.

"He is a very persuasive person, a good speaker and motivator," said Jim Maurer, Transfiguration’s administrator. "He did a lot of one-on-one contacts, inviting people to make significant donations to the building fund."

Smith said one capital drive raised $6 million to double the size of the church, add eight classrooms and a school gym and increase office space.

Working with government

Among his other achievements at Transfiguration, Smith helped lobby to relocate the Ramsey County family shelter from downtown St. Paul to Maplewood, where 40 percent of the church’s congregation lives, he said. The downtown shelter building was getting redeveloped and the shelter needed a new home.

The proposal to move the shelter to Maplewood faced huge resistance from the business community, residents, and, initially, the City Council, Smith said.

"My role was to provide encouragement and presence at meetings, and lobby in my congregation, to generate some passion and involvement in the effort," he said.

Simpson plans to seek government help to build the housing, Smith said: "We have been told the city and county look favorably on these kinds of permanent solutions."

Smith said it is important to him to live his faith, and the job at Simpson gives him the opportunity "to contribute to people, to their lives, in a meaningful way."

"It is important to me to see myself as a child of God and as ‘Joe Christian’ in the world," he said.

Smith is available for speaking engagements on homelessness. Call to arrange appointments at 874-8683, ext. 201.