Insurance executive Tim O'Connor knows a good investment when he sees one.

Every buck invested in this venture will return many in a healthier, safer downtown.

O'Connor, chairman of the Minneapolis Downtown Council and an executive vice president of the Hays Cos., is a ringleader in an impressive business-faith-government collaboration to get more than 150 chronically homeless guys into permanent housing and relieve overcrowding at the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities shelters on the north end of downtown.

"This is a great opportunity to help people who are among the most vulnerable," O'Connor said. "We don't need to raise taxes or put in place new programs. Our Downtown Council executive committee and businesses are stepping up with their checkbooks. The downtown church congregations are stepping forward. The case workers are ready.

"All of us need help at some time in our lives. We want these people healthy and housed. It's a privilege to serve."

Tuesday morning, the newly formed "Currie Avenue Partnership" will announce a $350,000, one-time initiative to fund 10 veteran caseworkers for six months. They will focus on getting hard-core homeless off the street. These homeless folks, some of whom are veterans, have mental health, chemical dependency or other conditions that also may make them a threat to themselves and others. Many qualify, without knowing it, for subsidized housing and health services.

The business community, through the council, has pledged to raise $280,000. The faith community, led by Plymouth Congregational Church and Westminster Presbyterian, already has raised most of its $70,000 goal.

"This is what our businesspeople and the people of our congregations want to do," said Rev. Jim Gertmenian, senior minister of Plymouth. "It also is our mandate -- Christian, Muslim and Jew -- to care for the most vulnerable."

There have been scattershot approaches to this over the years. This will be the most focused effort in the loop since the chronic inebriates and other "bums" of 40 years ago gave way to the current generation of homeless. They are as likely to be a drug-hooked suburban teen tossed out of the house as a rough-hewn drunk or mentally unstable guy who years ago would have been locked up in a since-shuttered state hospital.

This also can be a taxpayer-winning exercise, based on several years experience with a promising, statewide effort to end homelessness, according to Cathy ten Broeke, the project coordinator for the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County.

In short, folks go homeless because of chronic unemployment, mental illness and traumatic experiences, situations often compounded by chemical dependency. They can cost tens of thousands of dollars annually to the criminal justice system, emergency medical care at public hospitals and other public services.

In 2008, Hennepin County, working with St. Stephen's Human Services, started focusing on stable housing for several dozen homeless people who had cost the city and county up to $95,000 apiece in police and emergency services, including detoxification centers, based on a study of six of the homeless in 2007.

The upshot: If you can get them an apartment and the medication and services they need, the public cost drops by more than two-thirds. They get healthier and quit hurting themselves and others. Some of these guys are working jobs and paying taxes today.

One fellow was arrested by Minneapolis Police more than 100 times in 2007 for "tagging" downtown buildings with graffiti. Since he was housed and got proper treatment, he's been to court once, after a lapse in his medication. Hennepin County District Judge Richard Hopper commended him on his improved behavior, and the fellow promised not to mess up again. He hasn't.

Not coincidentally, police report a 15 percent decrease in downtown arrests this year, thanks partly to St. Stephen's outreach workers and "safe ambassadors," funded as part of the "Downtown Improvement District," a nonprofit, self-funded creation of the Downtown Council focused on a clean, safe downtown.

The new initiative also will target some homeless guys linked to thefts, threatening behavior and aggressive panhandling. That's bad for business. They also can be threatening to other shelter residents.

"We are trying to circle the issues in a kind and caring way," said Sam Grabarski, longtime CEO of the Downtown Council. "This program has new friends ... an array of business and faith leaders. We want to help break the cycle of homelessness."

The nonprofit housing industry and participating landlords are bringing online subsidized units for homeless individuals and families. Unfortunately, the economic downturn has meant lost jobs and more folks on the street this winter. It's estimated that 3,000 homeless people, including kids, are sleeping in church basements, shelters and under bridges, mostly in and around downtown.

Donations for the downtown homeless project are being accepted by the Family Housing Fund ( More information can be found at:

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •