The St. Vincent de Paul Sweet Dreams shelter that houses women and children was already at capacity, with people having to be turned away on occasion, when the August floods drenched Baton Rouge and homelessness became an even more pervasive problem.
The society's employees and supporters said Monday that they hope an expansion to the Bishop Ott Sweet Dreams Shelter will mean fewer homeless women and their families. At the groundbreaking ceremony, St. Vincent de Paul President and CEO Michael Acaldo said the number of rooms at the shelter will double and the number of beds there will jump from 36 to 72, plus 16 cribs.
Acaldo also described the "leap of faith" that St. Vincent de Paul is taking by starting construction now, while the project is still short $119,000 needed for the more than $1 million expansion. That was another unexpected hurdle from the floods -- higher construction costs than they originally anticipated.
"I can't tell you how devastated we were when we got the prices back," Acaldo said about receiving construction bids after rebuilding from the floods made building costs soar.
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Still, St. Vincent de Paul has already raised $978,000 for the shelter expansion and an anonymous donor has agreed to give $50,000 to buy beds and other furnishings for the shelter. Construction is expected to finish by the end of 2017.
Around 60 emergency shelter beds are available each night at places across Baton Rouge for homeless women, but the most recent data from a one-night survey of homelessness in January 2016 found 118 homeless women in the area. The number of homeless men in Baton Rouge is still higher -- counted at 354 in the most recent survey -- but more shelter space is also available for them.
The nine rooms already available in the Sweet Dreams shelter are built in a dormitory style with shared bathrooms, but the nine new ones will be like "mini hotel rooms" that have bathrooms inside of them, Acaldo said.
Sweet Dreams is also the only shelter in the area that will take a mother and her teenage son, Acaldo said. Most shelters for women and children stop letting boys go to them once the boys become older, but Sweet Dreams allows mothers to bring their 16- and 17-year-old boys, he said.
Bishop of the Diocese of Baton Rouge Robert Muench blessed the expansion site with holy water, joking that as he sprinkled it across the dirt, a loud noise from the street that carried on through the news conference finally stopped.
"See, it works," he chuckled as he held up the holy water.
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Muench also praised Acaldo, declaring him "an angel," for his works in the community.
"Our wish is to provide sweet dreams for women and children and all of our guests," said Cary Kearny, the committee chairwoman for Vision 150, which is raising money for the expansion. "They're facing terribly trying circumstances and we want to get them to sweet dreams."
St. Vincent de Paul is accepting donations on their website, and people can also phone them in at (225) 383-7837 or mail them to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, P.O. Box 127, Baton Rouge, LA 70821.