Delivering Compassion to the Homeless

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Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis

Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis has a lot going for it. Its anchor institution is the Hennepin Theatre Trust, which runs three of the historic theaters on the street. It also has a number of dining and hospitality options. There are some wonderful facades of early twentieth century structures. It is also a block from the Nicollet Mall, one of the first urban revitalization/pedestrianization projects of which I am aware. Construction on a rebuilding of the Mall is in the completion phase. The city’s Department of Public Works is now in the planning stages for a similar reconstruction of Hennepin.

On a recent visit to the Twin Cities at the invitation of the Trust I learned that the perception of safety in Downtown Minneapolis and specifically on Hennepin is poor. A good deal of this negative perception seems to be driven by a sense that the street is “overwhelmed” by homeless individuals, clients of local social service providers, occupying the public spaces of the street. In fact, an attendant at a parking lot in the neighborhood told me that working there was “bad” and that he was often required to break up fights that take place on the sidewalk adjacent to the lot.


A Breaking Ground outreach worker

Minneapolis is undergoing economic changes that are different from other major cities. Big businesses have relocated, some of them recently, outside of the downtown. Major arts institutions, like the Walker Art Museum and the Guthrie Theater, are not located in the downtown. The winters in the Twin Cities are cold and snowy – and both Minneapolis and St. Paul have extensive systems of skyways between buildings and parking decks. As a result, the number of pedestrians at peak hours in good weather is far less than one would expect.

But there are strategies that have proved effective in other places to work on these issues – particularly with respect to assisting the homeless. It seems ironic that Minneapolis, with its strong cultural institutions, leading philanthropies and progressive business community, once a leader in the downtown revival, is not taking advantage of what has been successful in other places.

It has often proven to be true that the perception of the density of people engaged in antisocial behavior in public spaces is greater than the activity itself. It is irregular and antisocial behavior that delivers the cues that people pick up on that makes them feel as if their physical safety is being threatened. The seeming unpredictability of the people who appear to be free from social norms in public spaces creates this fear – some of which is based on experience and some of which, unfortunately, is not. Most people over-read both the probability and the extent of this threat. You see two or three people during a three or four block walk and you feel that the public space is being “dominated” by the homeless. You see the same person sleeping on the sidewalk two or three times in a week and you read that as half a dozen different people. We all do it. This over-reading makes the “problem” less difficult to address then it appears.

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Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis

I spent a few hours on a recent morning walking along the five blocks of Hennepin Avenue where the theaters are concentrated and counted, perhaps, a dozen people who appeared to be in need of service, or hanging out on the street – and no more than that. During that time period none of those people asked me for money or in any other way attempted to interact with me. That may or may not have been a representative sample, but from talking to people and the Trust and local business owners, I got the impression that it was certainly not anything other than ordinary. I concluded, based on my experience, that the social service needs of these individuals are unlikely to be overwhelming. They can be assisted and found places that are better for them to be then on the sidewalks of Hennepin Avenue.

In downtown Jamaica, Queens where there are more than a dozen facilities providing services for homeless individuals and families – the densest concentration in the Borough of Queens – we were able to virtually eliminate street homelessness by identifying people in need when they appeared on the sidewalks and in public spaces and then providing them with high quality outreach services. I suggested to the Trust that such an approach could make a significant impact on the perception of safety along the Avenue.

In Queens, we had the benefit of a citywide program to provide outreach services to the homeless. The city contracted with provider by borough, and in Queens we were fortunate that the agency with the outreach contract was Common Ground Community (now known as Breaking Ground), founded by McArthur genius award winner, Rosanne Haggerty, and the city’s largest provider of supportive housing for the formerly homeless. Rosanne created some of the earliest and highest quality supportive housing programs in New York. The first of which, in 1991, was the highly successful Times Square Hotel. Rosanne now runs Community Solutions, a national resource deploying the best problem-solving tools from multiple sectors to help communities end homelessness and the conditions that create it. Common Ground’s outreach workers are well-trained, highly skilled, compassionate, persistent and effective. In our experience in Queens, they were able to persuade all of the people living in public spaces in our community to accept service within a week of our identifying them as being in need.

Our strategy was relatively simple. We had on staff a community member named Thomas Crater, Jr., whose job it was to ride around the downtown on a bike and identify issues needing to be addressed – street lights out, dumping of commercial trash, street trees needing replacement, and individuals on the sidewalks in need of services. Tom got to know these folks and their situations, and while not a social service professional, he was generally able to make a relationship with them. He also let our Jamaica Alliance Ambassador staff know about the individuals and their location, which we then communicated to Common Ground. Common Ground would dispatch an outreach worker, generally the same day, who would contact the individual, evaluate their needs and offer them service.

Two elements of Common Ground’s approach appeared to me to be essential to their success. First, they were persistent. If an individual was resistant to service, the outreach workers would return every day to offer them service and to attempt to persuade them to come indoors. The second, that I recently learned from Rosanne, is that they identified the services required by each individual and then contacted an agency with the capacity to meet that need on the client’s behalf. This is less obvious than it sounds, because most agencies specialize in what they do – and try to fit clients into their programs. The reverse, client-centered, approach has proven to be more effective. We are fortunate in New York City to have a wide range of available services among social service agencies – addressing the entire spectrum of client needs. Given the number of social service facilities near Hennepin Avenue, if this isn’t true now in downtown Minneapolis, it ought to be.

In Jamaica, we also worked with the programs in the community to limit their external effects. By sitting down with the management of the various facilities we were able to communicate to them the negative impacts (when they occurred) that their facilities imposed on the neighborhood, and work with them to devise solutions. The City of New York’s homeless services agency, the funder of these programs, was helpful in persuading the agencies to change their practices where they had unintended negative effects and in identifying appropriate resources that could be used to address them. In one case, a facility housing formerly homeless families, a curfew policy locked out clients who returned after 10 PM. This resulted in the curfew violators sleeping in a nearby park. We were able to persuade the agency to provide a space inside their building for their late returning clients. I recommended to the Trust that they meet with the local social service agencies, both individually and as a group, as well as with the relevant city agency, to work on solutions to the neighborhood issues created by their programs.

The future for Hennepin Avenue and its cultural facilities is promising – particularly after the completion of the planned capital project. I noticed that even while the Nicolette Mall is not quite finished, and there remains a significant presence of construction equipment on the street, neighborhood restaurants were already putting out tables and chairs on the sidewalk immediately adjacent to the noisy, dirty project. This suggests to me that the demand for public space is very strong in the downtown. The period while the Hennepin Avenue project is under construction provides a particular opportunity to rethink how services are provided to its most disadvantaged neighbors – when the space won’t be available to them. But until then, identifying or creating a high quality outreach program, and working with agencies already receiving resources to address the needs of the homeless, as well as with city government, to make sure that the full range of requirements of clients are being met, has great potential to improve the perception of Hennepin Avenue and downtown Minneapolis. I believe that this approach has the capacity to be helpful in many communities.

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Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis

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