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Steve O’Neil: a driving force to end homelessness, save taxpayers money

DULUTH — The goal is not just to provide emergency shelters, but to end homelessness by addressing its underlying causes.

Steve O'Neil stands outside the Dorothy Day House in Duluth.

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose. In this series, MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

DULUTHDuluth rightly boasts a wealth of scenic beauty and fascinating attractions. But on winter nights when the wind whips across Lake Superior, it is one of the toughest places in America to be homeless.

Yet hundreds of men, women and even children lack shelter on many a night in the port city.

If Steve O’Neil has his way, all of them eventually will sleep under secure roofs on a regular basis. O’Neil is a driving force behind a 10-year plan to end homelessness in St. Louis County, which stretches from Duluth north through the Iron Range.

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The goal is not just to provide emergency shelters, but to end homelessness by addressing its underlying causes. A parallel objective is to save taxpayers’ money by reducing the costs of police work, emergency-room services and other expenses associated with leaving people in desperation on the streets.

“Homelessness isn’t free,” O’Neil said. “When people are homeless, they use emergency rooms. They wind up in our jails. … We pay the bills, we as taxpayers.”

During the initiative’s first three years, some 140 volunteers from key organizations and professions were recruited for the cause, nearly 300 units of permanent and supportive housing were developed or under construction. And more than 1,100 homeless individuals were identified – including nearly 500 children.

‘Superstar for folks in need’

The fact that O’Neil is a St. Louis County commissioner doesn’t begin to tell the story of his work on behalf of the intiative called “Heading Home St. Louis County.” His drive is rooted in decades of service to Minnesotans who have needed a helping hand.

“Steve is a superstar for folks in need,” said Bruce Stender, vice chairman of Labovitz Enterprises, a Duluth-based investment firm.   

“I’ve told my kids that he is the Mother Teresa of Duluth,” said Stender, who credits O’Neil with sensitizing the community to the plight of the homeless.

“Steve’s life is committed to eradicating homelessness — but, beyond that, to looking for what causes homelessness and dealing with that,” said Sister Lois Eckes, the prioress at St. Scholastica Monastery.

In 2008, the McKnight Foundation selected O’Neil for a Virginia McKnight Binger Award in Human Services. The award goes, the foundation says, “to some of the real heroes and heroines of our society … they simply see people in need and come to their assistance.”  One of McKnight’s criteria is to honor individuals who “enable people to help themselves and others.”

That’s O’Neil, said Jeff Corey, director of 1Roof Community Housing in Duluth.

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“Steve transforms how people see the world, and he does it in a way that he brings people along on the journey,” Corey said.

Starting in Chicago

The personal journey that prepared O’Neil for this challenge started 61 years ago on the South Side of Chicago, where he was born one of eight children in an Irish-Catholic family. With a social worker for a mother and several relatives in politics, there was no question about community service: It was expected.

O’Neil’s father, who sold industrial pipes and fittings, sometimes took his son on rounds to factories. They passed through hellish neighborhoods where bone-chilled street dwellers huddled around fires lit in steel cans, often drinking from bottles.

“Anybody can become homeless,” O’Neil remembers hearing from his father.

Alcohol, mental illness, drugs and other problems could drive people from all economic classes and all walks of life to the streets, his father said.

“That scene really stuck in my head,” O’Neil said. “I started to become aware that a lot of people lived in really miserable housing, and some people had none.”

A ‘great seed’ planted

Further inspiration came in Catholic school, from a teacher known at the time as Sister Damien. Other teachers urged students to bring canned goods to help the poor; she prodded them to tackle the reasons people were poor in the first place.

She also introduced her students to the story of Father Damien, the Belgian missionary priest who, while serving in Hawaii during the 19th century, voluntarily took up the cause of ministering to people with leprosy. With little outside help, he served as pastor and physician at a colony on Molokai Island for 16 years before succumbing to the disease himself. He came to be seen as a martyr of charity and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

“That story planted a great seed,” O’Neil said. 

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In other words, the foundation for a serious commitment to social justice was taking shape in the conscience of young Steve O’Neil.

It grew at Illinois State University Bloomington-Normal, where he met Mildred Pratt, a dynamic African-American crusader for civil rights and human rights in housing, employment, education and other spheres of life.

“She was the first person who identified community organizing as a job and a way of life,” O’Neil said. “It took me about a year to explain to my parents, though, what a community organizer did.”

Chicago … 1960s … civic hotbed

Back in Chicago, O’Neil found himself in a hotbed of organizing fervor. It was the place where Saul Alinsky had launched his brand of community activism during the 1930s.  The passion of the civil rights and anti-war movements brought it back to life in infectious fashion during the late 1960s.

O’Neil was schooled, grassroots style, in Alinsky’s confrontational tactics. Over the years, though, O’Neil forged a far different style for himself. (More later on that subject.)

After working to pay off student loans, O’Neil landed his first organizing job in Milwaukee, where a coalition on the city’s east side was fighting plans to build a four-lane highway through the neighborhood.

The work was fulfilling, but O’Neil felt a compulsion to go to graduate school. And he found his perfect fit in a social development program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

And so, Duluth became his community in the mid-1970s. And there were ample reasons to mobilize, beginning with the fact that banks were not granting mortgages in low-income neighborhoods.

There was no public record of individual mortgages, but there were disclosures of total lending by ZIP code. Those numbers provided hard data to support anecdotal complaints that the only way to sell a home in hillside, blue-collar neighborhoods was to negotiate a contract for deed.

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Initially, banks declined to meet with representatives of the neighborhoods. So, in one of the first actions of the group that grew to be known as Minnesota Coact, citizens from Duluth’s low-income neighborhoods circulated their complaints via leaflets distributed outside a prominent Duluth savings and loan.

The local media picked up the cause, and “there was an explosion,” O’Neil recalled.

Eventually, the banks met with the organizers, began advertising in low-income neighborhoods and granted modest mortgages to credit-worthy home buyers.

Meeting Paul Wellstone

COACT grew, and O’Neil took his organizing skills south to Rice County, where he was to meet the next person who would have a major influence on his life’s work: Paul Wellstone, who was a grassroots-stirring Carleton College professor.

O’Neil became a frequent overnight guest at the home of Paul and Sheila Wellstone and an occasional speaker in Wellstone’s college classes. He took time off from work to help Wellstone run political campaigns — first, unsuccessfully, for state auditor in 1982 and then, successfully, for the U.S. Senate in 1990.

Like so many other Minnesotans, O’Neil remained close to Wellstone until his sudden death in 2002. Indeed, O’Neil had planned to pick up the Wellstone party at the Duluth airport, where they were to attend a rally and fundraiser on Oct. 25 that year. Wellstone decided to go first to a funeral on the Iron Range. His plane crashed en route, killing all eight people aboard.

Many of the tactics Wellstone deployed so successfully in political campaigns were rooted in community organizing, O’Neil said. For example, the Wellstones shunned hotels when they travelled around the state, staying instead in private homes where they would cement bonds with families and neighborhoods.

O’Neil honed those same tactics over the years as he moved on to work for the Land Stewardship Project. It was an odd fit, he acknowledged, since his closest tie to farmers was with great-grandparents who had worked the soil in Ireland.

“But organizing is organizing, whether you are a homeless person, a farmer or a low-income neighborhood person,” he said.

Marriage and a spiritual quest

Along the way, O’Neil met Angie Miller, another organizer who was working in Winona. Their Catholic-Protestant marriage launched a spiritual quest.

O’Neil acknowledged that he had fallen away from church. But at that point, he said, “my faith was coming back.”

Their quest took them to Washington, D.C., in 1983. Father Edward Guinan, a priest who had been active with Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement, had founded the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) as an expression of faith and moral concern about justice and human rights.

CCNV helped organize the first congressional hearings on homelessness in America in nearly 50 years. And it convinced the Reagan administration to make a vacant federal building available for the homeless. That was the beginning of Federal City Shelter, the nation’s largest facility serving the homeless and advocating for their needs.

Those were seminal times in the nation’s understanding of the problem of homelessness. The flamboyant activist Mitch Snyder had joined the CCNV cause. His fasting to pressure the Reagan White House into helping the homeless was documented in a CBS television movie starring Martin Sheen.

O’Neil and Miller were in the thick of the action, working for CCNV and living in a house for the seriously-ill homeless.

Seeking a safe place to live

By 1985, though, they were ready to return to Minnesota and start a Catholic Worker community. It took a few years. Their Loaves & Fishes Community opened its first house to the homeless in 1989. Now there are three homes.

“Work for Peace; It’s a matter of life,” says a sign outside one of the houses in an East Duluth neighborhood a few blocks from the lake shore. This house, The Olive Branch, takes in homeless families.

Inside, Greg Boertje-Obed, a full-time volunteer, served lemonade and cookies at the dining room table while children in a resident family played upstairs. A picture of Dorothy Day graced the piano.

Typically, families come through a church or a social worker, often when they’ve reached the point of living in a car or on the street, Boertje-Obed said.

The need that comes through the doors of the Olive Branch home is repeated thousands of times over in Minnesota. On any given night, at least 13,100 people in the state are homeless, according to research by the Wilder Foundation. After leveling off in the mid-2000s, the ranks of the homeless grew dramatically during the Great Recession.

In a one-night survey in 2009, Wilder found 1,675 homeless families with children, a 27 percent increase over 2006.  In all, 3,251 children were counted with their parents on the night of the survey, up about 500 from 2006.  The average age of children with their parents was six.

It’s a heartbreaking problem that O’Neil insists is solvable. He takes an apolitical view of the reasons it persists in Minnesota and across the nation: “Homelessness is a bipartisan issue, and it has been a bipartisan failure.”

Angels and rules

At the Loaves & Fishes houses in Duluth, families get much more than a safe place to sleep. They are surrounded by support, beginning with camaraderie.

“Food angels” (donors from supportive churches and community organizations) bring dinner for the residents, and everyone eats together at the long wooden dining table. Some of the “angels” are former residents who are back on their feet.

Some families have stayed for months before getting a place of their own. In order to do so, they must obey certain rules: no drinking or drugs, no physical or verbal violence, take care of your kids and be in at 10 p.m. when the doors are locked.

Down the street at the white, frame Dorothy Day House, Steve Johnson, 47, was in the kitchen, stirring together the ingredients for tacos. He said he had no place to go when he was released from the Challenge Incarceration Program at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Willow River, where he had been serving time for felony DWI.

“I had to have a safe place to live in order to get out of the program,” he said. “Here, they welcome you right in. … These volunteers are not your typical person. They have a heart of gold.”

O’Neil’s family lived in one of the houses for years, even after the couple’s two daughters were born. Now he has stepped back, and left the Loaves & Fishes management to others.

O’Neil calls himself one of many volunteers in the operation. Joel Kilgour, one of the full-time volunteers, says he’s a valuable mentor, too.

“He gets a lot of calls,” Kilgour said, rolling his eyes.

Another person might have burned out after decades of working on this cause. Not O’Neil.

Sister Eckes, the prioress at the St. Scholastica Monastery, has worked with O’Neil over the years on various projects. She credits “deep spirituality” for sustaining his dedication.

“He has a beautiful, ecumenical heart,” she said. “I always tell him, ‘You have a heart after the heart of Christ.’ … He lives the gospel.”

Evolving tactics

Beyond Loaves & Fishes, O’Neil also worked other community service jobs in Duluth. One was with Churches United in Ministry (CHUM), which serves Duluth with everything from drop-in health clinics to food shelves to organizing neighborhoods around housing issues. 

In that job, you wouldn’t have guessed that O’Neil had his start in the combative Saul Alinsky school of community organizing, said Jim Soderberg, CHUM’s executive director. O’Neil works to build consensus and coalitions, Soderberg said.

“He is well respected by a broad range of community members, and he works well with conservatives as well as with progressives,” Soderberg said. “He is very good at finding common ground.”

O’Neil agreed that his tactics had turned dramatically over the years.

In the beginning, he said, “we trained people to demonize our opponents.”

It was an inherently violent process – not physically violent, but hateful in spirit, he said.

“I saw community leaders turn that same process against one another,” he said. “They were good at it. I was good at it too.”

During his stint in Washington, though, he learned different tactics — the non-violent organizing strategies of Mohandas Gandhi.

“It was a whole different kind of organizing,” O’Neil said. “There was confrontation, but not to demonize or castigate.”

YIMBY and public office

Back in Duluth, O’Neil deployed that new style in the face of neighborhood opposition to affordable housing.

“Passion would rise in the neighborhoods from people who did not want the affordable housing,” Soderberg recalled.

“Steve was really good at going out and talking to folks, listening to their concerns and connecting them with neighbors who didn’t share the anxiety,” Soderberg said. “It would dial down the rhetoric because people were more respectful talking to their neighbors. … It really changed the nature of the dialogs.”

Among other tactics, the champions of affordable housing launched a “YIMBY” campaign: Yes In My Back Yard!

“We had signs throughout Duluth welcoming a Habitat (for Humanities) house or a small apartment building,” O’Neil recalled.

One project in a mixed-income neighborhood drew the opposition of a county commissioner. After failing to change her mind, O’Neil and others in his affordable-housing coalition decided someone had to challenge her re-election. The group drafted O’Neil.

He won the seat in 2004 by a narrow margin and ran unopposed for re-election in 2008.  

Jeff Corey, O’Neil’s colleague and friend, joked that I should do this profile “in spite of the fact that he is a county commissioner.” The land-trust initiative that Corey directs is another project O’Neil co-founded.

“Steve is a bridge builder like no one I had ever met,” Corey said. “I could walk down Superior Street with him, and we would be just as likely to stop and have a conversation with a couple of bank presidents as with homeless folks. … He has an amazing ability to connect in a way that is meaningful and genuine.”

One of those business leaders was Stender, of Labovitz Enterprises. A few years ago, O’Neil recruited Stender to help convince other business leaders that investments in ending homelessness were worthwhile.

“Steve attracts people who know how to get things done,” Stender said. “He does it in a way that’s non-threatening. He keeps searching for people. … He is consistently on message. He’s a gem.”