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Small Operation, Big Impact: The Dorothy Day House of Hospitality

July 1st, 2016 by Amanda Hofland

For 33 years, the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Moorhead has been working tirelessly to change homelessness and hunger in the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo community. Staffed by a group with a passion to serve, the house represents a safe place for people to make positive changes in their lives. And for some, it’s an opportunity to change everything.

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The Dorothy Day House started as an emergency shelter in 1983 and was founded on the spirit of hospitality and generosity. Since then, it has expanded to include two food pantries to better accommodate volume, as previously they would give out food baskets from the small house kitchen.

The Dorothy Day House currently has beds for 13 men – and while this makes them the smallest shelter in town – it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t make a big impact. With a staff of 13 employees and over 3,000 volunteers, they are able to empower people on their journey to self-sufficiency. Their food pantry serves nearly 2,000 people a month, and in the last five years, the house has helped 136 men move into homes of their own.

Sonja Ellner, executive director, was thrilled to learn that the organization was selected as the 2016 ChamberChoice Small Not-for-Profit of the Year. “For us, it was exciting to provide that visibility for homelessness and hunger. It was great for our staff to be recognized for the work we’ve been doing for so long and to be able to share that with our community.”

Days at the Dorothy Day House are busy. Visitors, volunteers, staff and the individuals they serve come and go throughout the day, but things are much more structured for those staying in the house. Wake up calls happen at 8 a.m., and breakfast and lunch is self-service from the kitchen and dining room. All current guests are out in the community between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and are expected to be actively working on goals they have set. Come 6 p.m., a family-style dinner is served to all.

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The staff at Dorothy Day House believes in each of the people they serve, and they work to provide and empower them, but also to hold them accountable. A case manager meets weekly with the guests to set – and check in about – each of their goals and talk through any issues they might be having, providing further resources when needed.

Goals vary for all the people they serve, but each is personalized to the individual. Some may be pursuing employment, job training, housing or battling addictions or illnesses.

While others might turn people away, the Dorothy Day House welcomes all with warmth and graciousness. Whether you need a bed to sleep in, a meal to eat, a load of dirty clothes to wash, or simply an ear to listen, you can expect to find an environment of people ready to provide just that at the house.

The people there celebrate victories large and small. Take Bart, for instance, a resilient man with a storied past and trademark suspenders. Bart had been homeless for the majority of his 56 years and suffered from PTSD. During his stay at the Dorothy Day House, he discovered he had liver cancer. After a series of close calls with his housing and health, at one point, the doctor said he had three weeks left to live, and things seemed impossible. But the staff worked some miracles and was finally able to set Bart back on his feet. A special apartment was secured, home health services and Hospice were set up, and Bart moved in. Turns out, the second chance at life was all Bart needed. Within days, he was walking, shopping and decorating, and his spirits were higher than they’d ever been. As the shelter director at the time said, “The transformation he went through from homeless and sick to housed and hopeful was incredible.” While Bart passed away last July, he is a shining example of the great things that can happen when a group of people who truly care come together to help.

This is the kind of work that leaves a lasting mark on the people who see these stories day in and day out. Ellner says what’s most rewarding is seeing people make positive changes in their lives. “I think we’ve broken down what success means,” she said. “We celebrate things like being sober for a week—maybe we’ll get a cake from the food pantry—or seeing people get the key to their own place, and coming back to tell us how they’ve decorated.”

Ellner is excited at the spirit of collaboration and care that is starting to happen around homelessness in the community. Part of that is the partnerships they have with other area shelters and care providers, even furniture and grocery stores. “I think there’s a lot of work still to be done, especially in terms of affordable housing, but there’s also been a lot of progress lately.”

The one message Ellner wanted to deliver through this article was to help change the stigma around homelessness. “I would challenge people to look at everyone as a human being,” she said. “Homelessness or poverty doesn’t define them as a person. Once we get through some of those layers, people can open their minds, and we can foster understanding about the issue.”

The Dorothy Day House has served a great community need for the past 33 years, and they hope to do the same for the next 30 by embracing the people they serve and adapting their programs to meet those needs.


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