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Village of Hope: New shelter opens today

Rebecca Hoffman, the executive director of the Village of Hope homeless shelter, addresses the crowd Thursday afternoon at a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the opening of the facility. Pictured in the background is board chairman Scott Thorson and board member Lois Jenkins. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Rebecca Hoffman recalled her first day of work as director of the Ours to Serve House of Hospitality. It was her 23rd birthday and, after parking her pickup truck, she had to weave her way past two men who were out back smoking cigarettes.

As she turned to go inside, one man leaned over to the other and said, "I give her two weeks."

"This has been the longest two weeks of my life," laughed Hoffman, who turns 40 later this year.

Hoffman, the executive director of the new Village of Hope homeless shelter, was one of four individuals who spoke during the ribbon-cutting for the facility Thursday afternoon outside along the 300 block of Mississippi Avenue Northwest.

Village of Hope replaces the House of Hospitality, the old shelter located at 416 Irvine Avenue Northwest.

The new shelter offers housing for up to 28 people in six family units. Four staff apartments upstairs will allow for 24-hour service.

Hoffman worked at the House of Hospitality from 1994 to 1997 and then returned in 2006, when she began to lead the effort to fund a new, improved Bemidji homeless shelter.

She said it took her about two weeks into her first stint with the House of Hospitality before she began to get to know its clients and their stories. Soon, she realized they all had common themes such as abuse, childhood abuse, love withheld, growing up too fast.

"Really, it was those stories, and the people I met, that brought me back eight years later to work on this project, the Village of Hope," Hoffman said.

Scott Thorson, the chairman of the board for Village of Hope, credited Hoffman with the final result of the new shelter.

"Because, literally, without what she did, we wouldn't be standing here today," he said.

Thorson said the board had been kind of "stuck in the mud" about what to do about the need for a new facility. Hoffman came in and "took the bull by the horns" and began to take steps toward securing funding toward a new shelter.

"From that time forward, she never looked back," Thorson said. "Day and night, whatever it took, she was there."

Thorson announced that the largest space in Village of Hope, the dining and community area, will now be known as Hoffman Hall.

Speakers thanked all those who contributed to the new shelter, including the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, which approved the $1 million grant, and Kuepers Inc., which designed and constructed the facility.

"We as a community should be very proud today," Thorson said of the finished product.

In 2009, House of Hospitality served 128 people and turned away 739 for lack of accommodations.

"(It) serves a small population, but a growing population," he said.

Hoffman said that in the planning for Village of Hope, three key words became thematic: dignity, safety and hope.

She noted that indoor and outdoor security systems provide safety, a keypad enabling clients to come and go as they please gives them dignity, and she will be filled with hope as the facility officially opens today.

"This journey hasn't been an easy one," she said. "But it pales in comparison to the experiences the homeless people live every day."

About 100 people attended the ceremony, which was held outdoors in the parking lot area for the facility. The ribbon for the ceremony wove its way through the crowd, offering everyone the opportunity to take a piece of the project.