New coordinator aims to end homelessness

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December 19, 2005 // UPDATED 2:00 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Cathy ten Broeke brings hands-on and policy experience to job

Cathy ten Broeke is the new point person on homelessness for the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County.

She is charged with no small task in the newly created position: overseeing efforts to end chronic homelessness in Minneapolis and other cities in the county.

Despite facing a rather daunting job, ten Broeke (which means “by the brook” in Dutch) is optimistic about her work. The Linden Hills resident said she’s sensing “more political will” to combat homelessness now than ever before.

The problem, she points out, is a relatively new one. Nationwide, cities’ homeless populations started to swell in the 1980s, she said.

“We as a society have become complacent, believing that this has always been a problem and will always be with us, so we have to figure out how to manage it,” ten Broeke said. “This is not the case. We do not have to manage homelessness — we can end it.”

The long-time advocate for the homeless is fresh off a 16-month Archibald Bush fellowship, wherein she studied innovative ways to prevent homelessness around the country. She also earned her master’s degree in public policy from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs as a Bush fellow.

Among the more innovative solutions she observed while away from Minneapolis was a project in Philadelphia involving an outreach team dedicated to sweeping the streets looking for homeless people in need of help. The trained outreach workers match the city’s homeless with a variety of housing resources and social services.

Since launching the program, the number of people living on the city’s streets has dropped to 200 people from about 800 in 2001, she said.

She also spent time in New York City learning about the city’s new Housing First program, which provides housing for the city’s chronically homeless who typically face a series of obstacles in finding a permanent place to live. “They offer housing first, rather than waiting for someone to jump through a lot of hoops,” she said.

Ten Broeke said she’d like to see Minneapolis and surrounding communities explore similar initiatives. Officials at St. Stephen’s Shelter, 2211 Clinton Ave. S., are launching a pilot Housing First program that is placing homeless people in apartments with subsidized rents, she said.

Before her fellowship, ten Broeke worked as a policy aide on housing issues for Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman for three-and-a-half years and before that, she served as the director of St. Stephen’s Shelter for eight years.

Dorfman said she’s set the bar high for ten Broeke and is optimistic that there will be an end to homelessness in the near future.

“I’m very optimistic that this isn’t an exercise in planning. This really is about seeing outcomes and results in the first year,” Dorfman said.

The Commissioner and Mayor R.T. Rybak have pushed for the new position. Rybak’s budget, which will be considered for adoption by the City Council on Monday, Dec. 19, sets aside $100,000 for one year for the coordinator’s budget. The funding includes $70,000 from an affordable housing trust fund and $30,000 from a federal community block grant.

The funding source for the coordinator position has sparked some criticism. City Councilmember Natalie Johnson Lee (Ward 5) was critical of the new position during a budget markup hearing because she said it wasn’t an open process.

Monica Nilsson, director of The Bridge, a resource center for youth in Uptown, has similar complaints about the process. She said she would also like to see a permanent, stable funding source for the position.

Despite her concerns, she backs ten Broeke. “She has a wealth of knowledge and experience,” she said.

Dorfman said local government and community officials needed someone to coordinate all the independent efforts working on matching homeless people with affordable housing.

“We need to all work together and not be quite as siloed in our response,” she said.

Rybak echoed Dorfman and said the city needs to align with state and federal officials who are working on ending long-term homelessness.

He called ten Broeke someone with a “unique ability to relate to both elected decision-makers and homeless people at the same time.”

“This position requires someone who can go to the White House and who can go to the shelter and carry the same message of compassion and coordination,” Rybak said.

According to numbers provided by Hennepin County, John Petroskas, a housing and shelter specialist with Catholic Charities, and Nilsson there are an estimated 1,045 single homeless adults, about 500 people experiencing homelessness with their families, and about 250 homeless youth in the county.

The numbers don’t include the estimated 4,585 homeless students in Minneapolis Public Schools — a figure provided by Elizabeth Hinz, a Minneapolis Public School District liaison for homeless and highly mobile students.

“I’m very much looking forward to children’s issues and needs being part of this discussion,” she said.

The Wilder Foundation in St. Paul conducted the latest statewide study on homelessness in 2003. The next study will be done in October 2006, and the findings from the research are expected out spring 2007, said Greg Owen, a consulting scientist for the Wilder Research Center.

According to the 2003 statistics, shelter providers counted 7,015 homeless people in shelters and transitional housing programs across the state. Based on counts of homeless people living in other arrangements, at detox and on the streets on Oct. 23, 2003, the total number of homeless people was estimated between 8,800 and 8,900.

While many harbor stereotypes about the homeless, ten Broeke said she counts people she’s met at St. Stephens among her greatest teachers. When she first started working nights at the shelter, she balanced the job with a day job waiting tables at Palomino on Hennepin Avenue.

One day, she got fed up and the quit the day job after a customer complained about the type of spoon he had for his soup.

“I decided it was not the kind of service I wanted to do,” she said.

At the shelter, she was struck by the work ethic of so many people she met. Some would get up at 4:30 a.m. and take three buses to get to work.

“I’ve never met people who work harder,” she said.

Several advocates for the homeless say ten Broeke’ passion and diplomatic skills will be asset for the position and help others advance the cause of ending homelessness.

Tom Fulton, president of the Family Housing Fund, a Downtown-based nonprofit group that works on producing and preserving affordable housing for low-income families in the Twin Cities, met ten Broeke while working on a city-county task force on homelessness.

“She blends compassion and grounded common sense and vision because she has both a practitioner background and a policy background,” Fulton said.

Tracy Berglund, director of housing for Catholic Charities, said she’d like to see ten Broeke work with a broad coalition of business and community leaders on innovative approaches to the problem. Too often, the city’s homeless end up in detox, jail or the emergency room, she said.