St. Anthony: This architect knows all about homelessness

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2013 - 2:35 PM
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John Knowland was a successful Minneapolis architect until he became addicted to drugs, lost his job and family several years ago and went homeless. Now he has a part-time job and lives in an apartment in Minneapolis.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Architect John Knowland, 61, defies the stereotype of a homeless man. Yet he went homeless in 2008, the result of a prescription-drug addiction, the loss of his career and the breakup of his marriage.

It started when Knowland, an architect for nearly 20 years at the Minneapolis firm HGA, sought counseling for depression and job-related stress a decade ago. He got hooked on a prescription drug. He drank excessively. And he added cocaine after his psychiatrist halted the Adderall prescription.

Knowland and two former colleagues said his aberrant behavior at work led to his firing from HGA.

He slept on a friend’s couch from 2008 to 2011. After the friend lost his job and home during the Great Recession, Knowland scrounged the streets and slept in the Salvation Army’s Harbor Lights shelter downtown.

Knowland hadn’t thought much about homelessness when he lived on a $100,000 salary-and-benefit package. But he found out it takes all your energy to scrounge food, stay clean, protect your belongings and otherwise survive when you are on the street. You lose touch fast with what had been your comfortable life.

“There is no privacy when you’re living in a room with other people at the Salvation Army,” Knowland recalled. “One guy gets a cold, everybody does.”

Knowland blames no one but ­himself.

“I take responsibility,” said Knowland, who has been sober since 2011. “I don’t blame anybody at the firm or anyone else. I just don’t beat myself up anymore.”

And he’s gotten a second chance, for which he is eternally grateful.

In February, Knowland got housed thanks to the several-year-old Currie Avenue Partnership, which is supported by the Downtown Council, several churches, St. Stephen’s Human Services, Catholic Charities, Simpson Housing and other agencies. The goal? To get homeless adults off the streets, out of temporary shelters and into stable housing. They created a fund to hire several social workers that has led to about 150 adults getting housing and the services they need.

Today, Knowland lives in a small apartment in south Minneapolis. He’s healthy and grateful, slowly reconciling with his ex-wife and daughter. He works part time and volunteers with St. Stephen’s on homeless projects, including meeting with civic, church and school groups to explain that anybody can go homeless.

“The reason John is a valuable spokesperson is that it’s hard for many people to believe you can come from the white middle class and end up on a friend’s couch and a homeless shelter for four or five years,” said Margaret Miles, interim executive director at St. Stephen’s. “It’s historically true that many of the homeless come from the working class. There tend to be a lot of veterans, and more high school graduates than college graduates.’’

But it’s not so true anymore, according to Wilder Foundation research. The newly homeless can be middle-class folks who lost their job and home.

“We’ve made great strides in housing veterans and long-term homeless individuals over the last four or five years,’’ Miles said. “The Wilder survey showed the new challenge is homeless families and newly homeless people since the Great Recession. You or I would call family members if we fell on our hard times. There is not the family safety net for everybody, so they fall into the social safety net.”

Kurt Johnson, a longtime colleague of Knowland’s, said Knowland was a bright architect who helped lead HGA’s movement from hand-drafting to computer-aided design in the 1980s. But he sensed that Knowland started to feel threatened by new hires and a sense of professional vulnerability in his final years at the firm.

“It was like John had retreated inside of a shell, and there seemed to be a little paranoia,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know that he’d gone homeless, but I knew things fell apart at home. It’s nice to hear that he has found a way to get cleaned up. To go that deep, from professional to the streets, must have been tough.”

Knowland, who appears calm and possesses a ready sense of humor, is considered a delight around the St. Stephen’s office. He pokes fun at himself and the world when he’s ­meeting with anyone interested in helping more homeless folks help themselves to a better life. Humor helped him get through a lot of days on the street.

“Being able to laugh was something that I found to be invaluable … especially dumb jokes,” Knowland said.

Knowland said there are a lot of “angry homeless” people out there with mental health issues. Others have just lost their way and need help.

He’s working with the Downtown Council on its plan to end homelessness. Know­land said he’d like to help design low-cost, studio-apartment housing and renovate abandoned buildings for affordable housing.

Homelessness is a business and a human problem, as the Downtown Council has concluded. Homeless folks hanging around without adequate shelter are a threat to themselves and to public safety. Once housed, they tend to get healthier and take care of themselves. That leads to fewer police and medical-emergency calls. Some become employed.

That’s good for them and the economy. More information can be found at www.heading homeminnesota.org.

 

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

 

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