A little research on the homeless crisis in Duluth provides jaw-dropping numbers: In St. Louis County, 1 in 386 people are homeless. In the rest of the state, 1 in 706. And Duluth’s poverty rate is 52.2% greater than the state rate. Of those in poverty, 30.9% are high school graduates.
Why are the rates of homelessness and poverty in St. Louis County double the rest of the state? Before we can tackle any part of the problem, we need to find out why it’s here. And we need to know if the people we are helping are from our county, other places in Minnesota, or even other states. Limits should be placed on assistance provided to those that are not St. Louis County residents. People that are arriving in Duluth or other places around the county to take advantage of the agencies that are here should be provided a ride back to where they just came from. Our declining population can not bear the cost of helping the transient homeless.
Understanding the homeless problem is difficult people can be on the streets for many reasons. The Wilder Research Center does a one-night study on homelessness every three years that gives a small glimpse of the problem. The last study, from 2018, found:
- 46% of the homeless population in the state are youth, 24 years old or younger
- There was a 25% increase in the homeless population aged 55+
- The number of people not in a formal shelter was up 62%
- 77% of homeless people have multiple homeless experiences starting at an early age
- More than half (52%) became homeless before they were 24, 36% before they were 18.
- You can view the entire study here
There are over a dozen agencies in Duluth that provide assistance for those in poverty or suffering from homelessness, yet the problem continues to grow.
Why is the help not helping?
Poverty and homelessness is a dynamic problem. People that fall into its clutches often don’t just not have money to pay rent, they have other characteristics that make it hard for them to obtain housing – whether that be limited education, a disability, mental health issues, drug abuse issues, escaping physical abuse, or a history of poverty that starts in childhood.
All the experts say “We just need more affordable housing.” But unfortunately that is not true.
While the “affordable” housing supply is low, studies have shown that most homeless would need other support to transition to a stable housing situation, everything from treatment for drug abuse and mental health issues to job training so they can secure an income.
In St. Louis County, part of the problem is the one-size-fits-all solution agencies try to apply to our homeless crisis.
In a November 2018 Duluth News Tribune Article, Kate Bradley the coordinated entry coordinator for St. Louis County, Housing and Redevelopment Authority of Duluth explained that the county decided to “put everyone on the list”, where other agencies segregated lists by singles or families, or people in shelters, St. Louis county decided to put everyone on one list. However, no one is required to be on the list.
Once on the list they are assessed for mental, physical, chemical, social, and health factors resulting in a score that places them in a “tier” that describes the type of housing they may need. Permanent supportive housing for those facing the most barriers, transistional for those in the middle, and rapid rehousing for those with the lowest barriers.
Deb Holman of CHUM explained that those considered long-term chronic homeless get the highest places on their list and those that are considered less vulnerable aren’t likely to reach the top of the list.
Viewed logically, this seems like the exact opposite way to do things. For example, when you have a to-do list that has one big thing you know will take hours, and a half dozen small things that might take 10 minutes. It makes more sense to knock the half dozen small things off your list, because if you start with the big thing you’ll never get the small things done.
Those that need the least help should be at the top of the list automically. However, the idea that those with varying needs are on the same list is another big part of the problem. If the county is classifying people in three tiers, each tier should be its own list with its own contact person/specialist moving people off the list.
Understanding homelessness in our region is more than a list and the agencies that manage it. Solutions to the same issues we’re facing in St. Louis County are popping up all over the country. Our elected leaders need to look outside their snowglobe bubble and seek solutions that are working elsewhere. One of those programs is sponsored by Rocket Mortgage and is called Built for Zero. It’s a national database driven program that gets to know the homeless population by name and tracks them throughout the year (not just one day a year) to really understand what is going on in a community. They connect each agency to work toward the same goal. Even if we can’t get the Built for Zero team to come to Duluth, the county and city of Duluth could look at their methodology and apply the same concepts on their own.
We’ve brainstormed a number of other ideas that could have potential:
Years ago Section 8 vouchers took the place of public housing. Public housing created the issue of segregating poverty in specific areas of a town, because of the lower income in those area, businessess, schools, and other things that could have improved the lives of those living poverty wouldn’t move into those neighborhoods. Section 8 vouchers allowed those living in poverty to live anywhere in a city giving them greater access to opportunity. Seemed like a great idea until they realized there wasn’t enough housing or section 8 vouchers to go around, which in turn created a big part of the affordable housing crisis we’re in now.
- Instead of going back to the public housing model, consider incentives to encourage the private sector to create affordable housing in desirable areas. Just like businesses are given TIF districts and abatements, those willing to develop affordable housing could receive the same. Tenants could still use Section 8 vouchers toward their rent. Currently, the lowest rent in Duluth is over $800/month, but most are over $1200/month. With the incredible amounts of property taxes and fees that the county and city of Duluth assess, can landlords even afford to charge less? Unlikely. Offering abatements, TIF like programs, or a reduction in fees, could relieve some of the burdens on housing property owners allowing them to charge less for rent.
- For the 18-24-year-olds that make up nearly half of those in poverty in our region, the county or city of Duluth should promote the idea of a private developer building a “dorm” with single rooms and shared amenities creating a really affordable option for those 18-24 years that don’t have family support to help them get going in life. Availablity could be income-based. The lower rent could help a person afford school or allow them to save money from their job to transition to traditional housing.
- For those homeless that just need financial assistance, a creative program that allows them to work for the city and receive room and board as well as an income that they can save to transition to the next level of housing would not only give them a roof over their head but a resume and referral for their next job.
The reality is much of our homeless problem is also a drug problem and as interesting and creative as the ideas above are, they won’t help those who aren’t interested in helping themselves.
Solving the drug problem in St. Louis County will go a long way towards eliminating homelessness. County and city officials again, need to look outside of our region for ideas on how to combat the pervasive drug use in our communities. Please take the time to watch the video “Seattle is Dying” embedded below. This is likely the future of Duluth if we don’t act now. Toward the end of the video, you’ll hear the story of Rhode Island and how they created a program that took both drugs and homelessness off their streets by giving law enforcement the power to arrest users and adding treatment plans to incarcerations with a plan to transition back to being a productive member of society. Making our communities a hostile environment for drug sales and use will taper the influx that we’re currently seeing.
But first, it is imperative that St. Louis County and more importantly, the City of Duluth acknowledge this is a problem. A severe problem that needs direct and dedicated attention before “Duluth is Dying”.