A safe place to rest

For years, the second floor of the Baton Rouge Society of St. Vincent de Paul dining facility on Florida Street was used for storage.

On Friday, Archdiocese of Baton Rouge Bishop Robert W. Muench walked up the stairs of the building to the old storage area and sprinkled holy water throughout the second floor as a blessing while guests followed him for a glimpse the area’s transformation into a shelter for the homeless.

Friday marked the first night members of Baton Rouge’s homeless population will spend in the new St. Vincent de Paul men’s shelter.

The shelter contains 31 single beds as well as lockers for visitors. However, within a month or so, the single beds will be replaced with bunk beds so the facility will be able to house 62 men in an emergency or disaster. The shelter was paid for by community donors and a $500,000 federal Housing and Urban Development grant.

Friday’s opening fell on the 21th anniversary of the first men’s shelter to open in the city, the St. Vincent de Paul Bishop Ott Shelter on Plank Road. The Plank Road shelter is still open.

The new shelter will replace the current St. Vincent de Paul men’s shelter on Convention Street. Having the new men’s shelter above the dining facility will allow St. Vincent de Paul officials to transform the former Convention Street shelter into a family shelter, St. Vincent de Paul Chief Executive Officer Michael Acaldo said Friday.

The group has $180,000 of seed money for the new family shelter, Acaldo said. He said he hopes the family shelter, which is only in the early planning stages now, will be able to house around eight families in quarters that resemble a hotel or motel room.

Right now, if a family with a mother and father needs shelter, the father has to stay in the men’s shelter while the woman and children have to stay in St. Vincent de Paul’s Sweet Dreams Shelter for Women and Children, Acaldo said.

Friday’s men’s shelter opening was also a celebration of another St. Vincent de Paul anniversary.

The facility’s dining hall, which opened in December 1982, has served more than 3.5 million meals in 30 years, Acaldo said. He said he expects the dining room will have served more than 240,000 meals in 2012 alone, a record amount.

The dining room provides hot lunches at noon seven days a week as well as daily brown bag dinners handed out at 3 p.m.

Cary Kearny, chairwoman of the St. Vincent de Paul Vision 150 Committee, Friday called the dining facility “a safety net” for the Baton Rouge community to ensure no one goes hungry.

“St. Vincent de Paul’s philosophy has always been a hand up, not a hand out,” Kearny said referring to the Catholic charity’s mission to assist the community.

Mayor-President Kip Holden attended Friday’s event and spoke about the importance of St. Vincent de Paul to Baton Rouge.

Holden said the people who eat their Thanksgiving meal at the dining facility never take it for granted.

“You hear them say thank you for serving me. Thank you for taking care of me. When we show people we care, it makes a difference in our lives and their lives,’ Holden said.

Acaldo said 2,000 people a year volunteer at the charity’s dining facility.

Marvin Ourso, 86, who attended Friday’s event in a wheelchair, knows something about volunteering for St. Vincent de Paul. He’s been doing it for more than 65 years.

“Been doing it since high school. Then spent some time in the Navy and was back doing it again,” Ourso said Friday.

When Ourso first started volunteering for St. Vincent de Paul, the group didn’t have one building.

“It just keeps growing and growing. And we need it. You just trust in the Lord and he keeps on providing,” Ourso said.