Gail Rosenblum
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Rick Klun wants us to stop focusing on homelessness.

It’s not that he lacks the heart, or stomach, to address this seemingly intractable social problem. Quite the contrary, Klun prefers to focus on what’s working.

As executive director of the innovative Center City Housing Corporation (CCHC) of Duluth, Klun rattles off heartening examples of Minnesotans moving out of homelessness — and staying out — as part of his nonprofit’s mission to build not just a roof and four walls, but permanent and supportive housing for youth, families and single adults, many of whom are mothers fleeing domestic abuse. Klun, 68, says it’s everyone’s job to ensure that all our neighbors enjoy the dignity of a dwelling to call home.

Q: Homelessness can seem overwhelming — too big for anybody, or any organization, to fix. You reject that. What keeps you optimistic?

A: Success breeds success. Fifteen years ago, the basic principle of “housing first” was uncommon. Now it’s common practice. We get more and more requests to do supportive housing projects, as communities learn that this model works and it is very cost-effective. Finding the most vulnerable people affordable housing is, literally, the foundation of success for these folks. Once they have it, they can work on sobriety or reconnecting with their family or seeing a primary care physician. But if you’re out on the streets, those are just insurmountable hurdles.

Q: Say more about “supportive housing.” What does that include?

A: We focus on high-risk groups, such as people with chronic substance abuse issues. A great example is our newly developed Park Place in Bemidji. This 60-unit apartment complex offers residents voluntary case management, an advocate for doctor’s appointments, a kitchen with three meals a day, and a 24-hour front desk to help ensure the safety of the tenants and the building. We also have a part-time nurse to help manage medications. I had never thought about being homeless and taking medication, but you might take the wrong doses at the wrong time, or trade it or it might get stolen. One of the first guys I met who was homeless was hiding his medication in the roots of a tree so he knew where it was.

Q: The kind of things many of us are lucky enough to take for granted.

A: Yes. If you’re a homeless mom with three kids and you’ve been sleeping in a car and all of a sudden someone hands you a key to an apartment with brand-new furniture and it’s fresh and there are pots and pans and someone will help you figure out how to feed your kids, it’s a huge, huge deal.

Q: How many units have you built, and how do you fund them?

A: CCHC currently has 715 units in its portfolio, but we have put a roof over the head of tens of thousands of homeless youth, adults and families. Each project’s funding is unique, including philanthropic dollars, tenant participation, federal, state and local funds, and faith-based assistance. Minnesota Housing and Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, our main funders, have kept ending homelessness a priority.

Q: As you point out, that goal benefits the larger community, too.

A: Keeping people housed and out of the emergency room, away from law enforcement and the court systems, saves all of us money. If someone is intoxicated, we’ll go pick them up rather than have law enforcement do it; use of detox buildings for chronic users is down by 90 percent for the people we serve. In Bemidji, law enforcement vetted us and came out in huge support. The court systems love us because people aren’t clogging up the courts.

Q: Faced any pushback from neighbors?

A: There always will be people who are not going to change and we have to keep persevering. I’d urge them to vet developers in existing neighborhoods, listen to testimonials and read research showing that personal housing values are either not impacted or are positively impacted by such projects.

Q: What does success look like?

A: For single adults with substance abuse disorders, it’s a reduction of alcohol use, detox and ER visits, reduced contact with the law and renewed family interactions. For families with young kids, it’s the length of housing stability, involvement in parenting development training and a reduction in out-of-home placements. For youth, it’s reduced involvement with law enforcement, and a focus on education and employment.

Q: What’s the biggest reason people fall into homelessness?

A: There’s no one single reason. It’s generational poverty, domestic abuse, mental health challenges, veterans issues, chemical dependency, alcohol and drugs (prescription and non), accidents and re-entry from incarceration. And, sometimes, it’s just bad luck.

Q: It’s easy to say this could never happen to us, but we shouldn’t.

A: Most people are one or two paychecks away from homelessness. I know five middle-income people whose children have become homeless due to chemical dependency. Their parents were not bad parents. But the bigger issue is that people are what I call “rent burdened,” left with little money after they pay their rent. That’s why Section 8 housing and other vouchers are incredible. They make it possible to afford rent.

Q: What would you be doing if you hadn’t chosen this line of work?

A: Bush pilot.