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Amid growing homelessness in the Twin Cities, outgoing Catholic Charities CEO sees hope — and warning signs

If Catholic Charities CEO Tim Marx has a message for those who will continue working to address homelessness in the region after he leaves the organization, it’s this: It’s not too late. 

photo of tim marx
Outgoing Catholic Charities CEO Tim Marx: “When you see somebody who you believe is experiencing homelessness, there’s a story that's behind that, a story to which many people can't resonate.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

As he enters the final months of his tenure running one of the region’s primary agencies responding to homelessness, Tim Marx says he has both hope — and fear — for what comes next for the region.

Marx, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has hope because he believes Minnesota’s public and private efforts on homelessness are among the best in the nation. “There’s still no better place to do this than in Minnesota,” he said in an interview last week. 

Because of that, he believes, the region has a chance of not reaching a point of no return: when the problem becomes so large that governments and organizations like the one he has run since 2011 are overwhelmed.

That is where cities such as Seattle and San Francisco are, and that is where his fear comes in. To avoid a similar scale of problems, Marx says there needs to be continued effort, and increased funding, from federal and state governments to scale up affordable housing. 

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Marx announced earlier this year that he would be leaving the charity once a successor is found and once a transition period ends, probably in the first half of 2021. He said last week that because he is still so involved in the daily operations, and because his tenure has no specific end date, he hasn’t allowed himself to become reflective about his work and the issues surrounding homelessness and affordable housing.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have opinions, though. During a conversation, he was critical of state politicians who had let politics block a badly needed bonding bill that could contain hundreds of millions for affordable housing, calling the failure of the bill “political malpractice.”

He also blamed the use of light rail trains and city parks to house the homeless on “a lack of political will and nerve.” And he said the federal government needs to step up to send more pandemic relief to state and local governments. “It is the one government that can deficit-spend, and it has proven that it can be very good at it,” he said.

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Number of unhoused people increasing

Marx agrees that the sight of people experiencing homelessness is a relatively recent phenomenon, something he traces to the 1980s, when three factors combined to create the problem. The first was the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill without creating an adequate replacement. The second was the loss, due to urban renewal, of weekly hotels and rooming houses that had been among the most affordable housing options. The third was the reduction in federal support for housing that began with the administration of Ronald Reagan.

“The confluence of those factors led to significant homelessness that continued to rise throughout the late ’80s and 1990s,” he said. 

That was when governments and nonprofits got smarter in how they responded, developing supportive housing that coupled shelter with services, and homeless levels began to decrease. 

They began to increase again during the Great Recession. But when that passed, something unexpected happened — the economic recovery did not bring a decline in homelessness. “We didn’t keep up with housing supply, rents continued to increase, incomes did not increase at a pace with rents,” Marx said “And even as we built this place, homelessness continued to increase.”

The number of unhoused people in Minnesota is high — and increasing. The most recent survey by the Wilder Foundation found that on a single night in October 2018, 11,371 people didn’t have housing in Minnesota. “So we were in a housing crisis before COVID,” said Marx. “And as COVID hit, we’ve seen the encampments, we’ve seen a continued crisis occur.” 

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Still, Marx gives high marks to the government and nonprofit response to homelessness amid the pandemic. “What gives me a lot of hope is that those of us who were working in this area and our government partners, particularly our cities and counties and with some state funding, have performed tremendously, we have prevented the worst from happening,” he said. “There is now more shelter capacity in Hennepin County and in Ramsey County than existed pre-COVID.”

He credits early action led by an epidemiologist on staff at Catholic Charities with keeping COVID-19 out of the organization’s facilities. Just 2.5 percent of clients at the charity’s various facilities have tested positive and protocols have reduced spread of infections. With the support of federal CARES Act funding, Catholic Charities has increased sanitation and reduced the number of people in the shelters by shifting mostly older residents to area hotels.

The overall response, he says, “demonstrates that if we try to move forward with speed, intensity and try to get to scale, we can flatten the curve of the homelessness problem.”

‘A lack of political will’ to take on hard problems

While that was happening, however, the Legislature was fighting over a bonding bill that Marx said contained badly needed funding for housing. “The partisan politics, the arguments over commissioners and unrelated issues are preventing a state bonding bill when the bonding is cheap and we need to ramp up housing production,” he said. “That, to me, is political malpractice.”

Marx said he has sympathy for elected and appointed officials who were forced to respond to people using light rail and city parks for shelter because both were unprecedented. But the reaction has been lacking.

“We hadn’t experienced that. Well, now we have,” he said. “It was a lack of political will and nerve to say, ‘We will not allow people to spend the night on trains,’ which are even more undignified than the least dignified shelter.” 

His suggestion for a short-term solution: using the publicly financed stadiums and arenas along those same light rail lines. “Why those places have not been commissioned to temporarily, in a dignified and humane way, resolve this crisis and provide that type of alternative in an organized and sustained systemic way, I can’t figure out,” he said. 

Millions were spent on the Super Bowl and Final Four, events he said he supported because of the positive branding they created for the state and region. And yet, he says: “Four or five headlines in the New York Times about the camp in Powderhorn Park … and people not wanting to get on the train from the airport when they visit … put to waste a lot of that branding because there was not the public will to come up with a better alternative, now.”

Once the current crisis is over, Marx said there are other issues that must be wrestled with, including “the systemic racism in our housing finance system and the way in which the region has allowed itself to develop.” 

Specifically, he points to the concentration of poverty and people of color in parts of the Twin Cities where outcomes are too often determined by ZIP code and the concentrations of wealth and privilege “which also prevents people from coming together and understanding each other’s stories and understanding how we need to support each other.” 

He also said over-dependence on private giving for homeless centers and opportunity centers “is not sustainable.”

photo of shelter beds
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground facility offers night shelters and meals as well as permanent housing.
Two of his organization’s facilities, Higher Ground and the Dorothy Day Place, offer both night shelters and meals as well as permanent housing, including housing for special populations, including young adults who might have aged out of foster care and end-stage substance abusers. Some pay rent; about 30 percent have jobs.  As Marx says: “Shelter saves lives, housing builds lives.” 

The Dorothy Day Place combines social services, benefit application assistance and education outreach within the same buildings. A health clinic also provides on-site services. And unlike the old center, where the people whom the staff call guests slept on mats on the floor, each person gets a bunk with a locker, outlets and USB ports. 

“This place costs about $12 million a year to operate, 80 percent of which comes from private donations,” he said. “There’s relatively little public money in the shelters and the opportunity centers.”

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Marx said there is also a need for organizations like his to recognize that they are “white cultural organizations” and to reach out to communities of color “so that we are meeting them where they are in solutions that will work for them.”

Marx was commissioner of the state Housing Finance Agency from 2003 to 2008 and left there to become the executive director of Common Ground, in New York City, one of the nation’s largest providers of supportive housing for formerly homeless people. He took over Catholic Charities in 2011. A lawyer, Marx had been city attorney and then deputy mayor of St. Paul and had been in private practice before that. He graduated from St. John’s, the University of Minnesota School of Law and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

He recalls volunteering at Dorothy Day in 1990, when it required people to get sober, and even find a  job, before they could get help with housing. That has been replaced by a “housing first strategy” that assumes that without housing, none of those other gains is possible.

Being homeless, he said, “brings out the survival instinct,” making it hard to think about the future when “they’re just worrying about what meal am I going to get next? Where am I going to put my head tonight?

“What we’ve seen particularly now that we’ve had access to hotels is that when people are able to have some private space, when they can take a shower anytime they want to, when they can get a few nights of good, real rest, they start viewing themselves and the world a lot differently. 

“When you see somebody who you believe is experiencing homelessness, there’s a story that’s behind that, a story to which many people can’t resonate.”

If Marx has a message for those who will continue working on the issue after he leaves Catholic Charities it is this: The region is close to the tipping point, but there is time to avoid it. “We need to solve this or get us on a better track before we get to that point of no return.”

Correction: This story was changed to correct the percentage of positive novel coronavirus tests at Catholic Charities facilities to 2.5 percent from 3.7 percent.