Home is where we hold our fondest memories. Home is mom, love and a cocoon of safety and acceptance. As children, the majority of us knew where we were going to sleep at night and never had to wonder if we would have enough food to keep our stomachs satisfied or if we would be warm enough during the winter. We were able to be kids: We got to play with our friends, go to school and grow into educated, well-rounded adults. 

Growing up, most of us were shielded from the harsher realities of life; however, not all kids are afforded that safety net. It may come as a surprise to learn that even in Rochester, Minnesota—a city blessed with a low unemployment rate, high quality of life and exceedingly high education and income levels—there is a homelessness issue affecting youth and adults of all ages.


Rochester has an underserved homeless population existing largely under the radar. Studies indicate that there are an estimated 200-300 homeless families and an additional 60-100 homeless youth living in the community. 

This is an issue that makes people understandably uncomfortable. Have you ever averted your eyes when you pulled up to a stop sign and saw someone holding a sign that says, “Homeless—Please Help” or “Will Work for Food?” The reality is that given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, the person holding the sign could be each and every one of us. It’s hard to know what to do when you see someone who is homeless.

Center City and the Empowerment Center

In an effort to meet the increasing need to provide housing for homeless people in our community, Duluth-based developer Center City Housing Corp. was invited to consider building a permanent supportive housing complex in Rochester. A deal came together and construction has begun on the 55-unit Gage East Apartments, which includes 30 units for families with children and 25 units designated for youth 16-21 years old.   

Nancy Cashman, Center City supportive housing development director, says, “Center City is excited to be part of the solution to a problem that has been identified.”

Gage East Apartments is being built on the campus of the former Gage Elementary School in northwest Rochester. The school building will be repurposed into the Empowerment Center, which will be a collaboration of several agencies housed on-site. The Empowerment Center’s services will be available to residents of Gage East Apartments, as well as anyone in the community who can benefit from them.

The guiding principle of Center City, in both the new permanent supportive housing complex and the Empowerment Center, is to continually ask, “How will this impact the kids?” With that question always in mind, the services provided on-site will support children and strengthen families by offering child-rearing guidance to parents. Other services include job training, educational opportunities and attending to mental health/chemical health needs. 

From Homeless to Hopeful

Randi Ruhanen has lived in Center City’s permanent supportive housing unit in Duluth , Minnesota, since April 2010. She says that the best thing about her experience with Center City has been “stability and people to keep me accountable.” She adds, “There’s no telling where my life would have gone,” if not for Center City. Ruhanen indicates that she has benefited from the childcare program, parenting class and the “Spirit of Mothering” program, which includes dinner and childcare. As part of this program, participants enjoy fellowship, share parenting challenges and discuss techniques to handle those issues.

Homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, emotional and physical abuse, domestic violence, lack of a structured environment, food scarcity, learning disabilities and a variety of other issues disrupt lives and put pressure on support services. If the cycle can be interrupted, we can effect change and help families and youth who have otherwise fallen through the cracks of our over-burdened system. By putting more resources into early-childhood development and families, we can help to improve lives, restore hope and, in the process, reduce future pressure on strained social services programs. 

How to Help – Donations Needed

Center City has begun fundraising efforts to transform the Gage Elementary School building into the Empowerment Center. The budget for the campus is $14.5 million. Center City has raised $12 million so far and has a one-time need for an additional $2.5 million. The funds will be raised via donations from residents and businesses in the Rochester area. The money has been earmarked to replace the roof, HVAC system and windows and build a commercial kitchen.   

Corey Jordan, development director for Minnesota Adult & Teen Challenge, agrees that programs like permanent supportive housing and the services offered through the Empowerment Center are definitely needed. He says, “If issues had been addressed earlier, they probably wouldn’t be in the situation they are in now.” 

Karen Edmonds of Project Legacy in Rochester concurs that Center City’s project is needed and adds, “It’s hard to address addictions when kids are still on the street.” 

Everyone needs consistency, love and acceptance in their lives. Getting people off the street and into a structured, safe and loving community is the cornerstone to building a stable and productive life. The services offered by the Empowerment Center will allow participants to begin rebuilding their lives on a solid foundation.

Cindy Mennenga, owner of Straight Talk Wellness, is a health coach and freelance writer based in Rochester.