Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, visited Rochester last week to discuss issues surrounding homelessness.
“What is so heartening to see in my hometown is the type of collaboration that is coming together to address what is right now not a crisis, but a problem,” he said shortly after meeting with city and Olmsted County officials, among others.
During his visit, he shared insights from more than two decades of addressing housing concerns, from serving as a Minnesota housing commissioner to leading a New York City nonprofit and eventually taking over the Twin Cities’ agency that is working to address metro-area homelessness and housing concerns.
Here are a few of his suggestions for Rochester:
1. Continue to collaborate.
“Unless communities come together in a multi-sector approach and really focus on the issue in both compassionate and commonsense solutions, you will be in crisis stage,” Marx said.
He said nonprofits, businesses and faith-based communities should be involved in working toward community-wide solutions before problems grow.
2. Stand in inquiry.
“I’ve learned over the years — working across the country and in the Twin Cities — that collaboration is an unnatural act between non-consenting adults. It is really hard,” Marx said, noting that multiple partners bring multiple perspectives.
At the same time, he said it’s important to listen to how others view the issue and realize other ideas have merit.
“You have to respect all of them, but then you have to figure out: What are we going to do?” he said.
That means not judging input from others. “Rather than stand in judgment, stand in inquiry,” he said, noting the goal should be to determine the origins of differing views.
3. Avoid the temporary trap.
Marx suggested focusing on permanent solutions. While local officials are looking at options for a potential five-month warming center this winter, he said it can’t stop there.
“You don’t want to make temporary solutions, like shelter, like a warming space, permanent,” he said. “You don’t want to get caught in that trap.”
He said the result will limit options for people facing homelessness.
“They will get trapped in that system without a permanent solution,” he added. “A permanent solution is housing and enough services so people can maintain their housing.”
4. Open doors while closing others.
Marx advocated for discouraging actions that allow people to sleep in the city’s skyways.
“We should not be having people spend the night in skyways or encampments, which are undignified situations,” he said, noting it creates public health and public safety risks.
As the city considers closing the skyways overnight, he said it must make sure homeless residents have a place to go.
“If you close down an option, you have to open up a new one,” he said.
5. Reach out.
“You have to have people who can go out and find the homeless and those who are experiencing it and not necessarily expect they come to you,” Marx said. “You have to have that outreach.”
He noted another part of that is listening to people experiencing homelessness.
“Listen to those with lived experience, who are experiencing homelessness,” he said. “What do they want, what do they need, what’s their story.”
6. Guard against judgment.
“We get tempted — all of us, me included — to kind of stand in judgment of how people carry their burden of homelessness and poverty, rather than standing in awe that they can carry it at all,” Marx said. “It is really hard work to be homeless or poor.”
He said the 62 percent increase in homelessness throughout the state in the past three years came as a surprise to experts, as well as many communities, but it’s a sign of larger problems, rather than individual choices.
“Homelessness is a symptom of a failed housing market, sometimes a challenged health care system, a difficult correction system, other systems that are failing and people end up on the streets,” he said.
7. Keep an eye on the bigger picture.
Marx said all aspects contributing to homelessness must be addressed by a system of housing and social services.
“Homelessness, like many complex problems, is multifaceted, and you can’t just address one thing, mental health, or another, shelter, or just housing,” he said. “You have to look at the entire suite of problems that are causing homelessness and then in a neutrally reinforcing way attack all of them simultaneously.”
He said the ultimate objective is to make homelessness rare, brief and one time.
“You can get this done, if you stay at it,” he said.