New head of Catholic Charities: How to end homelessness

Homeless teen
In this file photo from Dec. 22, 2009, a homeless teen is at the Hope Street Shelter in Minneapolis.
Dawn Villella/AP

Catholic Charities of Minneapolis and St. Paul has selected Tim Marx, an executive with a background in affordable housing, to serve as the nonprofit's CEO.

Marx will take over from Paul Martodam who received a cancer diagnosis and asked to have the board eventually replace him. Martodam will continue working for Catholic Charities as the nonprofit's strategy officer. The organization announced the change on Wednesday.

Marx headed the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency from 2003 to 2008. He left that job to head Common Ground, a New York City-based nonprofit agency that provides low-income housing and services. He will start his new job April 4.

Marx discussed his appointment, and the state's plan to end homelessness, during an interview with MPR's Tom Crann on Wednesday.

Tom Crann: How will your experience working on homelessness issues, especially in New York, shape your work at Catholic Charities?

Tim Marx: I think that the work of addressing homelessness -- all of us across the country have been doing the work in similar ways. And a lot of what I was doing in Common Ground was happening in Minnesota before I left Minnesota. And so we will bring the learnings from New York to Minnesota, but ultimately Minnesota is very far ahead of the curve in addressing homelessness overall as well.

Crann: How so?

Marx: Minnesota, as you know, has its Heading Home Minnesota plan to end homelessness throughout the state. And that was part of the genesis of a number of similar plans throughout the country, including those in New York and other parts. And so I think there's been a national movement that we really know how to end homelessness. We just need to stay at it, and use the tools that we have and get the resources that are necessary -- as homelessness has increased a bit because of the current recession.

Crann: Let's talk about that, this current economic climate, this recession. What impact has it had on homelessness, especially about who is homeless?

Marx: I think that we've seen homelessness increase throughout the country. The latest Wilder survey show that increase in Minnesota as well. And the primary increase, I think, has been in homeless families because of the economic circumstances, foreclosures ...

And that's why it's so important that once we find somebody who finds themselves homeless to use whatever tools we have -- and there are many -- to get them out of homelessness right away, because once you become (homeless) and if it becomes persistent, it becomes a much more difficult issue to address.

Crann: Catholic Charities runs a number of programs serving the homeless, the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul most prominently. How do you see Catholic Charities programs like that evolving and especially responding to this economy?

Marx: One of the things that we really must do as a state and a region and as a nation is to make sure that we maintain that safety net, so that we have that capacity so that nobody has to spend time on the streets.

But one of the things that is also very important is that we don't just manage homelessness, that we don't just have shelters -- that we have the permanent solutions such as permanent housing, which Catholic Charities and many other great providers have available. So that people can turn around their lives, who can reunite with their families, who can get jobs again.

So it's really been an innovation over the last 10 to 15 years not to manage homelessness in shelters, but to end it with permanent housing. And we need to, as we work out of this recession, as we maintain that safety net, continue to work on the permanent solutions.

Crann: It sounds like you've got to do both for a while.

Marx: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

Crann: Can you envision a time in Catholic Charities where they'll be little or no need for Dorothy Day Center?

Marx: That is the long-term vision -- that the need for a Dorothy Day Center or other temporary solutions becomes a much less prominent part of the permanent solution to addressing homelessness. Now a place like Dorothy Day, there's probably always going to be a situation where people are going to need short-term help. But the sooner that we can address short-term needs and get them to permanent solutions, that's going to be a much better solution for them and for society at large.

Crann: Are there any glimmers of hope when it comes to this economic situation and how it has affected homelessness?

Marx: One of the things that we have discovered is that we know how to end homelessness. And the system has been a bit overwhelmed because of the increase as a result of the recession. But one of the things that we know is that we're housing people -- and I haven't been as close to Minnesota in the last two years, but in New York and across the country -- we are housing people in record numbers. So if the numbers stop increasing and we have the resources to be able to continue to house people, that will allow us to continue the progress that had been made towards significantly reducing homelessness.

Crann: You've said we know how to end homelessness. Give me an example of one thing. What will it take? What does that look like?

Marx: Making sure that we have a system in place so that when somebody presents themselves to an outreach worker or to a shelter, that their interactions would allow them to get to permanent housing very, very quickly -- by finding them permanent housing, by finding the supports that are necessary so they can maintain that housing, mental health, chemical, other supports, and then to make sure that we have enough permanent housing supply to meet the need. And it really takes both. One to get them out of the short-term solution, and second, into the permanent solution, you need resources for both.

Crann: Where does the money come from for Catholic Charities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the majority of it?

Marx: About a little over 40 percent comes from government sources. A little over 40 percent comes from private donations from corporations, from foundations, from individuals, and other philanthropic sources. And about 11 percent and the remainder come from the archdiocese and from program fees.

Crann: How has this recession affected Catholic Charities' fundraising?

Marx: I think that the fundraising at Catholic Charities is very, very strong, and we have a wonderful set of partners and donors. And I think we've been able to hold our own during this period, but it has been a challenge and we need to keep at it.

Crann: We're talking about a $6.2 billion [budget deficit in Minnesota]. What is your message to the Legislature about that, when they start looking at cuts that may include things like homelessness and work in this area?

Marx: I think it's important to recognize that we'll all be better off as a state, the economy, the business climate, and clearly the social climate, if we maintain the social safety net and address these needs.

And if we are going to grow the state economy, if we are going to grow jobs, we really do have to address the long-term systemic issues of poverty, because poverty is very expensive. It costs everyone a lot. Clearly the individuals who are experiencing it, but the entire system, including the economy, and including the state budget, is not going to get where it needs to be until we systemically invest in permanent solutions to poverty.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)

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