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Housing and helping the homeless - An investment in human potential

Date Published: 01/21/2010

Author: Dane Smith, President


Minnesota’s ambitious goal makes business sense - but program falling short, rejuvenation still needed

In New York, there’s a stretch of 8th Avenue north of 42nd Street once known as “the Minnesota Strip,” because that’s where, in the 1980s, young Midwestern women were imported to work as prostitutes.

Today, in a building just a half block off that strip of 8th Avenue near Times Square, 642 single adults live in clean and cozy rooms, no longer panhandling or sleeping on the streets outside.

Creased and weathered faces betray hard lives as the residents come and go from the renovated Times Square Hotel, a 1920s vintage hostelry that long ago catered to a middle-class tourist trade.

Most of these current occupants have battled addictions and mental illness and have endured rough permutations of bad luck and personal failure. But many now are working at least part-time in the cleaned-up entertainment-and-arts industry in this formerly seedy neighborhood.

And their “home” is a model of stability and comprehensive care, offering medical and social services, chemical dependency counseling, recreational diversions, and even access to amenities such as rooftop gardens.

Many residents move up and out to better lives.

“Housing is, by itself, a form of treatment for mental health and substance abuse,” says the nonprofit executive who manages the facility.

“Getting people out of jails, out of emergency rooms, out of detox and into much less expensive housing where they can reconnect and recover is the right thing to do, from a humanitarian aspect. But it also makes good business sense. Street people are not good for business.”

The speaker and my guide on a tour of the hotel was Minnesota’s own Timothy Marx, formerly director of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, and now executive director of Common Ground, one of the leading nonprofits in the nation dedicated to ending homelessness.

In his Minnesota job, Marx oversaw financing and state policies and programs aimed at providing affordable housing on a broad front, for low-income families as well as the homeless. He is now a hands-on landlord and provider of those services.

“I’m actually doing it, and doing it is often much more challenging than providing financing and policy leadership,” Marx said.

“And I now have even more respect and admiration for all those Minnesota groups that do this, the Wilder Foundation, Catholic Charities, Common Bond, and the Central Community Housing Trust in Duluth, just to name a few.”

The Times Square story

The oft-told story of how New York City cleaned up Times Square tends to focus on tough mayors such as Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and crackdowns on petty crime.

Less celebrated is the quiet and absolutely vital role that federal, state and local governments played in actually investing in these human needs, and helping people who were literally in the gutter realize their potential.

About half the financing for the Times Square Hotel comes from government sources, and the residents themselves pay rent from income that’s derived in large part from welfare programs.

It was public investment from governments, as well as business leadership, that helped erase one of the most damaging and embarrassing displays of economic failure and inequality on the American scene.

Times Square is just a few miles from the international center of capitalism on Wall Street, and the community traditionally has hyped itself as the “Crossroads of the World.”

Research continues to show that smart and efficient investment in decent care for the homeless produces a return on investment. Here’s an excerpt from a 2008 study on Minnesota business and homelessness, conducted by Wilder Research:

“Recent research, and data from other states, shows clear evidence that homelessness does not have to be a permanent condition, and that homeless people can go on to pay for and manage their own housing, hold regular jobs and contribute to their communities.”

The report noted that in 2006, almost 30 percent of people who were homeless were actually working, and that half of the homeless on any given night in the Twin Cities are children.

Reinvigorating Minnesota’s goal

Minnesota set a goal in 2004 of ending homelessness by 2010. The initiative was one of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s distinctive departures from conservative orthodoxy and one has not heard a great deal about that goal since he began exploring a presidential run and appealing to a more ideologically pure conservative base of support.
But real progress was being made until the onset of the deepest recession since the 1930s.

A business plan that called for 4,000 housing units for the homeless by 2010 is still about 1,400 units short, due in large part to a recessionary dearth of tax-credit funding in 2009, according to Laura Kadwell, director of the state’s Ending Long-Term Homelessness initiative.

The initiative is still underway, and more units are likely to be built this year, Kadwell said.

Meanwhile, the foreclosure crisis, job losses and other brutal realities of the recession have swollen the ranks of the homeless far beyond the original projections.

In Hennepin County alone, Kadwell says, the number of homeless families seeking shelter went up by about 25 percent over the past two years, while the number of homeless single persons has been rising at about 3 percent a year for the past three years.

And as Marx now works the homelessness front in New York City, he offers encouragement for Minnesota not to lose sight of a goal that was within reach.

“We need to keep at it,” Marx said, “and focus on going upstream.”

By that, Marx was referring to the causes of homelessness, including policies that address job loss and inadequate pay, needs for rental assistance and preventing foreclosures, and developing better policies for people coming out of correctional facilities and for undocumented immigrant workers who fall into homelessness.

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