Advocate for the homeless sets her sights high

The woman whose job is to end homelessness in Hennepin County is optimistic that someday she'll work herself out of a job, and she's garnering a base of supporters.

Cathy ten Broeke's job title clearly spells out the mighty boulder she's supposed to push uphill in what seems a truly Sisyphean task: she's the Minneapolis/Hennepin County Coordinator to End Homelessness.

That's end homelessness, not reduce homelessness, or add shelter beds, or rescue people from underneath bridges on freezing nights. Ten Broeke's job is to put a stop to homelessness in the next decade.

With estimates that there are more than 3,000 people homeless in Hennepin County and 350 people sleeping on Minneapolis streets on any given night, many of them with other serious problems such as mental illness, it seems like a near-impossible job. But ten Broeke is an unabashed optimist. She said she has her dream job but hopes one day to be doing something else.

"I want to live in a community where homelessness is not an issue," she said. "I want to work myself out of a job."

Ten Broeke holds an unusual joint appointment with the county and the city. About $45 million will be invested in the next three years in the initiative to end homelessness, called HeadingHome Hennepin, with the money coming from federal, state, local and private sources. Clergy, judges, foundation leaders, university officials, police and politicians are among those who have signed on to the plan.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak describes ten Broeke as "the one person who could bring these disparate parties together ... her work is now seen as a national model on how to bring all these forces together. Cathy is immensely skilled, and her very low-key demeanor can be deceiving. She knows how to get things done."

Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman has made homelessness a centerpiece of her work on the county board. She attributes that largely to ten Broeke.

"Right after I got elected, she called me," Dorfman said. "Frankly, I didn't know there were homeless people in the county. I suspect if it weren't for her, I may have gone in a very different direction in my policy work."

Dorfman was so impressed with ten Broeke that shortly after she joined the county board in 1999, she hired her as an aide who worked on homeless issues.

"Cathy is passionate about this issue and understands it better than anybody ... but she approaches it in a very businesslike way," Dorfman said. "She understands that there is a solution. You don't assume it has to be this way in urban America.

"When a year and a half ago we brought together the [homeless] commission, it was really clear that she was the person to head the implementation."

Breaking cycles

The job seems a long way from ten Broeke's middle-class childhood in Iowa City, where her father was a dermatologist and her mother did custom framing. She came to Minnesota to attend Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter and after graduation spent a year in China teaching English.

"I think that's when I became even more interested in issues of poverty and social justice," she said. "I came back from China and wanted to find some work in the social justice field but I didn't really know what. So like anybody else, I just started waitressing."

She worked as a waitress at an upscale downtown Minneapolis restaurant during the day and began a part-time job at night at St. Stephen's Homeless Shelter, after a friend who worked there recommended it.

"I knew nothing about homelessness," ten Broeke said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me. Fourteen years later, everything I'm doing is related to that place. I just fell in love with the job, and the people I met were astounding to me. I learned so much from them."

She quit the restaurant the day a customer complained she had brought him the wrong type of spoon for his soup, and stayed at St. Stephen's for eight years as an advocate for residents. After Dorfman offered her a job, ten Broeke got a 16-month fellowship to study homeless issues. Working with an Urban Institute researcher in Washington, D.C., she traveled to Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco and other cities to see state-of-the-art practices dealing with homeless issues.

"There really is a sea change," she said. "All levels of government are talking about what it is going to take to impact this issue in a new way and create change. I think a huge reason for this is we have been able to prove that ending homelessness is cheaper for the community than managing the problem ... .

"The whole movement is about breaking cycles."

Progress on housing

Less than a year into the plan, progress has been made. Using funding from a state plan to tackle homelessness, a single team of workers has found housing for 90 single adults who were homeless for an average of 11 years. The new apartment dwellers typically pay 30 percent of their income toward their new homes, while both tenants and landlords get support through the program. Ten Broeke said the reaction from landlords has been good.

"One landlord who said he got into it because he thought it was the right thing to do said it was the best business decision he ever made," ten Broeke said. "He said, 'I get paid on time, and if I have an issue I have someone to call and they respond immediately. That's not the case with my other tenants.'"

While a significant number of people who are persistently homeless have other issues, such as mental illness or chemical dependency, services aimed at helping them work better once they are in the stability of a home, ten Broeke said. She said it simply isn't acceptable to have someone living in homeless shelters year after year.

"We want to only use shelters as they were intended," she said. "Does that mean no one will ever become homeless? Probably not. But we will have a completely different response to it. In that way, I believe we will end homelessness as we know it."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

  • CATHY TEN BROEKE

    Home: Minneapolis

    Age: 38

    Family: Partner Margaret Miles; ten Broeke is due to give birth to a son Nov. 5.

    Pets: A dog and three cats.

    Education: 1991 graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College with a degree in psychology and speech communication.

    Hobbies: She is a photographer and plays "clawhammer" banjo, an old-time music style.

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