That problem on First Street… It’s worse than we thought. And it’s been a problem for a really long time. Mayor Emily Larson knows, she worked for CHUM for 12 years in the drop-in center – and her husband, Doug Zaun’s company, Wagner Zaun Architecture, built CHUM’s Steve O’Neil Apartments. It really is puzzling how the city can ignore and deny the homelessness, public drug use, and public defecation happening in the middle of downtown after being so closely connected to it for so long.
The area around Lake Ave and First Street is dotted with social service organizations that provide homeless folks food, shelter, and healthcare. Organizations like CHUM, LifeHouse, and the RAAN Needle Exchange make a valiant effort to take care of our city’s poorest, but in many cases, they are not improving their lives but perpetuating the dire situation they are in, resulting in a myriad of issues for downtown businesses.
The CHUM Drop-in Center can take up to 100+ guests a day. It seems like they often have that many people in their center – and have for years. In 2013, a Duluth News Tribune article reported that staff at CHUM had caught more than 100 people smoking, snorting, or injecting synthetic drugs on their property in the past year. A support staff employee at the time named Shawn Carr was interviewed. He was quoted as saying “These days we have to spend so much of our time on policing.” He blamed the Last Place on Earth, a head shop that used to be at the corner of Superior St. and Lake Ave, and noted that during a week when the owner went to jail the activity slowed down. The article also quoted a shelter resident from Colorado, who said he moved to Minnesota to get away from this stuff but thought it seemed worse in Duluth, “people are coming in high all the time, getting in fights and trying to steal from one another.” At the time, the owner of Last Place on Earth, Jim Carlson, said that if he didn’t sell his legal products that his customers would turn to alcohol, heroin, and crack. As it turns out, he knew what he was talking about.
Today, on the CHUM website, the CHUM Center acknowledges this, “New challenges have arisen since synthetic drugs are not as readily available due to the closing of The Last Place on Earth. Since that time, users have turned to other drugs such as heroin and meth. This has precipitated a change in policy for the drop-in center to lower the barriers for folks who need to stay. Sobriety is no longer a requirement for entry. Instead, behaviors are monitored to ensure safety for all involved.” Are CHUM staff members and volunteers trained for this? Is it safe for staff and everyone else in the downtown area?
CHUM also manages the Steve O’Neil Apartments just a few blocks down the road from their center. People who have lived there say the neighborhood is filled with crime and the police are called every day. A woman and her family that used the emergency shelter said it was filthy, had broken glass, and a kitchen sink that had no hot water. Her children were terrified at the violence and screaming they heard from the hallways and street. Social services were there taking people’s children. Her own child was hit by a woman that worked or volunteered there but was told when police were called that the cameras were broken, even though they seemed to work fine anytime something happened to a staff person.
It seems like CHUM is in a bit over their heads. It’s not okay to invite active drug users, dangerously high individuals, and people who are likely to fight and steal into an area that should be thriving with business.
An individual who works downtown near the old Kozy Bar shared that they have seen people breaking into the Kozy to sleep and do drugs. The individual reported that these homeless people are aggressive, and that they have tools that they say were provided by CHUM. Although we hope that isn’t true, where else would they get them?
Going downtown should be fun, but in Duluth it’s scary. Last week a driver was approached by a panhandler while waiting at a red light. The man started pounding on their car window scaring the person enough they decided to go through the red light. This is not acceptable.
Organizations like CHUM are necessary, there is no denying that. But the numbers and type of homeless addicts we’re seeing in our region are not your local homeless. Many are coming here from other places to take advantage of our services; they aren’t afraid to be violent and they don’t care about our community.
You can’t blame CHUM for trying to provide the services they have since the 1970s, but even their last strategic plan admits they have too many programs for the current staff. That same report stays one of their strengths is community support – but we’re not seeing it. When the Mayor is a former employee, yet refuses to see a failing service in the heart of downtown, it’s time to do something about it.
Check back next week for Part 3 of the Problem on First Street where we explore some ideas for improving the homeless and drug problem in Duluth’s downtown business district.