Steve O’Neil: Advocate for affordable housing

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General Motors and banks are getting multi-billion dollar bailouts, while corporate executives bemoan their fates on yacht decks, expansive manicured lawns and in mansions. The outgoing government has done little about the nationwide plague of foreclosures and less about sub-prime lending scams. Nor should one hold their breath expecting the new administration to ride to the rescue of working stiffs who are homeless or about to be. Here at home, Minnesotans are working in a variety of ways to address the problems of the economic crisis, and to address structural inequalities that existed before the crisis hit.

Steve O’Neil is one of those Minnesotans. O’Neil has worked for social justice in Duluth for almost 20 years. He is a community organizer and cofounder of the non-profit Duluth Loaves and Fishes and Northern Communities Land Trust, providing support to homeless and impoverished. He’s also St. Louis County Commissioner in Duluth’s Second District. Embracing engagement as a means of grassroots advocacy, he is a recipient of the McKnight Foundation’s 2008 Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service. Here’s what he had to say in a telephone interview with Daily Planet reporter Dwight Hobbes.

How affordable is affordable housing, these days?

Affordable housing means that everyone should pay about 33% or less of their income for housing. Section 8 and public housing has a $50 monthly minimum so that does challenge some folks. In Minnesota we are making significant progress the last few years in providing thousands of new affordable housing units targeted to those who are homeless or at great risk. Sadly the Bush administration has cut the Section 8 program at the same time. This has reduced the housing opportunity for low-income folks. We have a ways to go.

Have you ever been homeless? Or had a friend or family member in that situation?

I have never been homeless. I have many friends who have been and a few that are now. Two of my close, middle class friends children grew up to become homeless and live with us at Loaves and Fishes in Duluth. Having known these two individuals as small children really brought home the fact that anyone can become homeless.

Dorothy Day Center/Catholic Charities in St. Paul requires social security number documented I.D. in order to receive services. Is this helpful?

Many shelters now require this info. The HMIS (homeless management information system) is now required by the feds for a variety of funding. It is helpful but at times challenging and painful for both those seeking and providing services.

2008 Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service
The McKnight Foundation’s 2008 Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human
Service were announced November 20th, going to six individuals. Since 1985, the annual awards have been given not to recognize single Minnesotans so much as acknowledge their work in making a difference for those around them.
“These inspiring individuals”, says McKnight Foundation board chair Erika L. Binger, have dedicated themselves to making life better for others”. Acknowledgement comes in the form of a $10,000 award.

What motivates your commitment to aiding those in need of housing help?

The injustice that homelessness in America is. My sense of justice is rooted in my spiritual and political values. There is no reason this wealthy country should have a 30-year epidemic of homelessness. This constitutes a moral and economic failure. Homelessness is not free of costs both for those who struggle with its misery and for our taxpayers. It costs a lot less to provide housing than to send people to jail, to provide health care in emergency rooms and hospitals and to use expensive detox services. The last 5 to 6 years we have moved to a new paradigm. We are working to prevent and end homelessness instead of reacting to the emergency crisis

What has been your greatest satisfaction?

The most rewarding moments have been seeing individuals I’ve known for years get into permanent housing and feeling good about themselves. I feel good in those moments when we’ve organized folks to speak with power to injustice and to see real change produced from our efforts.

What will you do with the $10K from Virginia McKnight Binger Awards?

I have given most of the money away to groups I believe in. Groups that organize people for change, advocate and provide services. I will spend a little on my family.


Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.