A spontaneous eruption of decency

A rare partnership to house homeless pairs charitable giving with state funds, business leaders with faith community

It’s amazing how a little wind chill can speed up a fundraising project. Especially when the money goes toward getting the homeless out of the cold.

In the final weeks of 2009, with plummeting temperatures and icy gusts lending new luxury to the idea of a warm bed, a group of 12 Downtown-area faith organizations pulled off an impressive flash-fundraiser, raising more than $70,000 from their congregations in under 21 days. The last-minute effort was part of a joint push with the Downtown Council to scrounge up $350,000 by year’s end. The money is providing a financial jump-start for a plan
by Hennepin County to move 150 homeless individuals out of two shelters on Currie Avenue and immediately into permanent housing.  

It’s called the Currie Avenue Partnership, and it’s far from a typical holiday charity drive. Rooted as much in hard-data economics as it is in moral cause, the project promises a rare intersection of shrewd fiscal policy and humanitarian ideals. It has engendered an unprecedented three-way collaboration amongst the government, faith-based and business sectors of Downtown. And if it works, it could make Minneapolis a nationwide model in the fight against homelessness.

A bright idea

Last month, when Cathy ten Broeke visited the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities on Currie Avenue, it wasn’t the overcrowding that shocked her. As coordinator of the Minneapolis/Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness, she already knew that the Downtown homeless shelters were full to the brim, packing 700 residents into facilities intended to sleep only 400, that people were crashing in hallways and chairs. By the close of 2009, the overcrowding was so common that many homeless advocates in the city had begun wondering whether they should open up more shelters.

“What struck me that particular night,” she recalls, “was that there were so many people with a disability that made them eligible for [publicly assisted] housing.”

Most of the men and women she spoke to had no idea that they qualified for such housing. And even if they did, ten Broeke said, they had no idea of how to find a housing case manager to help them navigate the process.

So instead of thinking about building new shelters — an expensive, inefficient band-aid for those suffering from long-term homelessness — ten Broeke said, “Why don’t we think about getting people who are eligible for permanent housing out of these temporary shelters?”

Group Residential Housing is an existing state program that helps low-income adults who have been placed in a registered living setting pay for food and lodging. According to the program’s website, more than 16,000 people use it every month. The budget forecast for the 2010–2011 biennium is $7.7 billion.

“This is money that people are already eligible for,” ten Broeke added. “They just can’t access it. We’re trying to leverage our resources to help connect individuals with a currently existing state program.”

Individuals experiencing long-term homelessness qualify for GRH just as do those who provide housing to such individuals. But funds only become available when a qualifying individual moves into a qualifying unit. So the trick is connecting the homeless to the housing providers — because GRH funds don’t activate until the homeless person settles into the new housing.

“That connection doesn’t just happen automatically,” said Laura Kadwell, state director for Ending Long-Term Homelessness. “You need someone to identify qualified housing who can then help move people who qualify into it.”

And that’s where ten Broeke’s plan comes in.

All ten Broeke would need would be to hire a small team of case managers who could guide eligible Currie Avenue residents toward GRH eligible landlords. She figured it would take $35,000 to support one case manager over a period of six months. She also assumed that each case manager would house 15 people (GRH funds take over the cost of case managers after they successfully house 15 people). Ten new case managers would cost $350,000, then, and could potentially house 150

“Once they house their 15 people,” ten Broeke says, “the state money kicks in and will be enough to keep the case manager going. It’s a one-time investment.”

‘The easiest thing in the world’

But how do you raise $350,000? You start by contacting two of the biggest churches in Downtown.

As one of the original co-chairs of the 10-year Heading Home Hennepin Plan to End Homelessness, the Rev. Jim Gertmenian of Plymouth Congregational Church had worked with ten Broeke before.

When she laid out her plan to Gertmenian, he said, “it became a no-brainer. My trust in Cathy as an extraordinary leader is such that, if she asks me to do something on this issue, I have to do it.”

On Nov. 20 Gertmenian brought up the issue with his colleague Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen of Westminster Presbyterian Church.

“It was a brilliant idea,” Hart-Andersen remembers. “But of course the religious communities Downtown don’t have those kinds of resources available quickly. That’s when the thought came to my mind to approach the business community.”

Hart-Andersen represents the Downtown faith community at the monthly meetings of the Downtown Council. He immediately arranged for Gertmenian and ten Broeke to meet with Sam Grabarski, president and CEO of the Downtown Council. Grabarski saw the economic sense of ten Broeke’s plan.  

By easing the burden the chronically homeless place on costly public systems — emergency rooms, detox centers and homeless shelters — the Currie Avenue Partnership, ten Broeke argued, can save taxpayer dollars and help resolve many of the livability issues that effect Downtown like graffiti and panhandling. She helped conduct a 2007 study that followed the 266 individuals who most repeatedly cycled through jails, shelters and detox. By housing only six of these individuals, the county found that it could save $13,000 per person in the amount of services used.

“These things were instantly identifiable for the business community,” said Grabarski. “It just makes Downtown more livable.”  

Convinced, he got the Currie Avenue proposal on the agenda for the Dec. 3 meeting of the Downtown Council.

In front of 40 business executives, on the 50th floor of the IDS Tower, “Cathy got up and told the story,” said Hart-Andersen. “And these executives were moved on the spot.”

The Council took a straw poll, and support of the proposal was near unanimous.  

Less than two weeks after the initial conversations amongst ten Broeke, Gertmenian and Hart-Andersen, the faith communities had a deal with the Downtown Council. If the religious congregations could raise $70,000 by the year’s end, the business community would pledge the remaining $280,000.

“It was fast,” said Hart-Andersen. “Nothing moves that fast in our world typically.”

And the actual fundraising?

“The easiest thing in the world,” said Gertmenian. The following Sundays, both preachers took the story to their congregations, presenting ten Broeke’s story in their sermons. “By the end of that afternoon we were at $30,000,” said Gertmenian. “People were literally handing me checks in the line after church.” All contributions came from individuals, he added, with the largest being $5,000, the smallest $25.

At press time, Gertmenian’s Plymouth Congregational Church had raised $60,000. Hart-Andersen’s Westminster Presbyterian Church had raised $20,000. The Downtown Council had reportedly raised $70,000, one week before the start of their formal campaign at the corporate level. The Council expects to announce the final fundraising tally at their annual meeting on Feb. 3.

Such a three-way financial partnership, with church collections and corporate donations serving to activate available state funds, is rare to say the least. It’s unprecedented in the United States, says ten Broeke, “and its success will be noted by other metropolitan areas.”

“This is something that was waiting to happen,” added Gertmenian. “There has been no push back, no foot-dragging. It’s like a spontaneous eruption of decency.”

Reach Gregory J. Scott at [email protected]