Devoted to Home: Cathy ten Broeke ’91

Under her leadership, Minnesota is about to end homelessness among the state’s veterans.
Posted on November 8th, 2017 by

Cathy ten Broeke ’91 is Minnesota's director to end and prevent homelessness. (Photo by Becca Sabot.)


In her windowless office in downtown St. Paul, Cathy ten Broeke ’91 slides some papers across a small round table. They are pages of “Heading Home: Minnesota’s Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, 2016-2017.” It is a plan backed by leaders of 11 state agencies and Governor Mark Dayton. Ten Broeke does not mince words. “Housing stability can and should be a bipartisan issue,” she says.

Nowhere on these pages does the name Cathy ten Broeke appear.

And yet this plan—and Minnesota’s previous and future ones—are her life’s work. She is the state’s director to prevent and end homelessness. In her 25 years as an advocate for housing stability, she has been arrested for sleeping in downtown Minneapolis, and the recipient of a Bush Fellowship. She has washed the dirty socks and underwear of men living on Twin Cities streets, and served as a special adviser for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in Washington D.C.

Three states have eradicated veteran homelessness: Virginia, Connecticut, and Delaware. Under ten Broeke’s leadership, Minnesota will be next, hopefully by Christmas.

“None of this work is done by one person,” she says.

But in Minnesota, it could not have been done without her.

“I was ready to go and do something,” ten Broeke says of her choice to become a Gustie. Having grown up and attended high school in the Big 10 town of Iowa City, Iowa, she was looking for a small liberal arts college with a great choir. When she visited Gustavus, “The place was so warm and friendly, I was sold.”

It was harder to sell her on a major. Education, music, psychology… Her favorite course was “Great Speeches in History.” She graduated having sampled a variety of topics and disciplines, with a major in psychology and an “accidental” major in speech communications. And she had developed an interest in social justice. “I had no idea what to do with those things, but I learned at Gustavus how to think about really big ideas and issues. And I learned that being able to articulate and communicate those issues is just as important as thinking about them.” 

She started working as a server at Palomino in downtown Minneapolis—a cloth napkin, salad fork, soup spoon kind of place. She went to rural China to teach for a year, which fueled her interest in poverty issues. When she returned, she ran into Gustavus pal Josh Lund ’91, who told her about a part-time opening where he worked: the all-male St. Stephen’s Shelter in south Minneapolis. “I knew nothing about homelessness. I had never met or talked to anyone who had experienced homelessness that I knew,” ten Broeke says. After that first night at that shelter, “I knew immediately that I was going to do this for a while.”

She didn’t stay at St. Stephen’s out of an amorphous desire to help people. “I might have been thinking that on the first night. But I learned right away that I was there to work with people. I don’t do this to be altruistic, but because a society with homelessness is not how our society should be.”

One day at the restaurant, a diner chastised her for bringing him the wrong spoon.

Ten Broeke quit on the spot. She would work at St. Stephen’s for the next eight years, becoming its director.

“Cathy really stood out because she immediately took an activist approach to the everyday struggles that we dealt with,” says pal Lund, now a Spanish professor at Notre Dame. “She was talented in working one-on-one with the men. She was especially talented at taking the everyday problems we saw and translating them to policy and large social questions.” It’s why, he says, she’s been so important and influential in the conversation ever since.

True, she says. Though she loved working directly with the men at St. Stephen’s, “I started to become dissatisfied. We’d finally assist someone into housing, and 10 men would show up that I had never seen before.” She was often advocating for homeless men in Hennepin County courtrooms, and constantly coming up against barriers, particularly for veterans with mental health issues, criminal histories, and past evictions. “When housing is tight, landlords can be extremely picky. They often don’t want to choose someone with a blemish,” she says. She began to believe that homelessness is less the result of personal choices and more the result of policy choices. “We did not have widespread homelessness, and there were essentially no homeless children, until the 1980s,” she says. “It was the result of a loss of affordable housing.”

And she began to see housing stability as a fundamental platform for success for people in all the things that indicate success in America: educational achievement (kids who are homeless do poorly in school), a strong workforce (a physical address is almost always necessary for a job), healthcare and its cost (People experiencing homelessness tend to access expensive emergency care rather than preventative care in a clinic). “Doctors would say to me, ‘I wish I could give a prescription for housing,’” she says.

The “housing first” model is key to getting people access to other stabilizing forces, and it is the policy approach homeless advocates push for: “Once housing is stable, then you can surround a person with the support they want and need to store medications, have regular access to any treatments or services, hold a job, and reduce stress for their children.”

But in 2001, when Hennepin County’s then-commissioner Gail Dorfman called to ask ten Broeke to come work with her on county policy related to housing, homelessness, and mental health, Ten Broeke (sitting in St. Stephen’s dark basement, surrounded by dirty laundry) said, “I don’t know anything about policy.”

Dorfman said, “Yes, Cathy, you do.”

Ten Broeke helped lead Hennepin County and Minneapolis efforts to end homelessness for 12 years, minus the the year she spent on a Bush Fellowship studying the national movement, and the months she spent in Washington D.C. as a special adviser to the federal director working on homelessness issues. It was little surprise when, in 2013, she was hired by the state of Minnesota to create an inter-agency council to end homelessness by 2020.

Fifty percent of Minnesota’s homeless individuals who are children and youth. At least 1,000 are young people who are homeless without a parent. Proficiency in reading among Minnesota homeless third-graders is twenty-one percent, compared to 42 percent for those receiving free and reduced lunch, and 61 percent statewide for all children.

Today, through ten Broeke’s leadership of the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, the number of homeless persons in Minnesota has decreased 7 percent statewide and 20 percent among families with children since 2014. These reductions among families with children are among the most significant decreases in the U.S.

In March, the federal government confirmed that homelessness among veterans has been eradicated in southwest Minnesota. In June, the federal confirmed northwest Minnesota and west central Minnesota as well.

Northeastern Minnesota, central Minnesota, and Ramsey County are very close as well. There are 242 homeless vets remaining in Minnesota. Ten Broeke hopes to have their housing ready by Christmas, about the time the State’s 2018-2020 plan to prevent and end homelessness will be unveiled.

An updated plan is necessary because there are still more than 7,400 homeless Minnesotans who are not veterans. Most are children and parents, some have chronic health issues, and at least 1000 are young people who are homeless without a parent.

“I think about that long arc of history—each of us has a role somewhere on that path. It doesn’t mean we have to carry the ball the whole way. I am only one piece of a very big movement. This is a relay—a justice relay—and the last mile is always the hardest.

“But I firmly believe that we can end homelessness, and that we very well may during my lifetime. And I’m going to keep trying to work my way out of a job.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


One Comment

  1. Greg Kaster says:

    Outstanding alum, outstanding person!