Garbage is piled behind a building on downtown’s First Street, the remnants of a camp where someone slept the night before. It’s daytime and a homeless man precariously sleeps on a median, using his belongings as a pillow. Finding a hypodermic needle during a walk around any downtown block is a common occurrence. Last weekend marked the 40th week of the year and the 31st shooting in our city resulting in three injured people taken to the hospital. This is Duluth.
Duluth has a lot of amazing attributes. It should be a top tourist destination. It should be growing and thriving with businesses begging for space downtown. But several administrations of poor leadership decisions have left Duluth a dismal destination to visit and a depressing place to live.
For years concerns have been shared about the increase in homelessness and drug abuse in the city. On this site, we’ve shared a video of a person shooting up in broad daylight on First Street, but all calls for help and attention go unnoticed. Early this year, pre-COVID, St. Louis County reported an 18% growth in homelessness, and CHUM claims 1135 adults in Duluth are homeless, as well as 59 children and 30 families. Their website shares that 150-200 people sleep in tents around Duluth each night. What will happen in just a few short weeks when nighttime lows are in the 30s and the snow starts to fly. The Wilder Research Group 2020 study reported that in the state of Minnesota between 2015-2018 there was a 62% increase in homeless not staying in a shelter, and 32% have been turned away from a shelter due to lack of space. Does the city have a plan? Or will they continue to rely on the overwhelmed network of nonprofits that seem to do just as much to support homelessness and drug use as they do to end it?
One of the most prominent of these non-profits is CHUM, located on First Street. In 40 years it seems they’ve done more to bring the downtrodden to downtown than they have to help them. And it’s not for lack of trying, they offer several services that should be life-changing, including housing assistance, a day center, an emergency shelter, outreach, the Steve O’Neil Apartments, and a Foodshelf. Their housing list gives the least attention to those who need the least help, instead, focusing on those who are chronically homeless. The Steve O’Neil Apartment is a hotbed for police calls and their food shelf hands out 1/2 gallons of milk and loaves of bread to homeless people who have no means to properly use these products leaving nearby property owners to clean up the mess of half-full jugs of milk and nearly full bags of bread left in their parking spaces and building entries. How is this helping? While we commend the efforts of nonprofits trying their darndest to make a difference, it’s important to know when to say “Mercy!” and demand the city step up and support their efforts.
Study after study shows that drugs, homelessness, and gun violence are connected. The Wilder Study found that 42% of the homeless had a previous drug or alcohol treatment, 62% had a serious mental illness, 57% have chronic health conditions, and 24% have a current substance abuse disorder. Not much a half-gallon of milk or a loaf of bread will fix. Homeless young adults have the highest rates of drug and/or alcohol abuse with rates up to 70%. Younger homeless people embrace street culture, making money through panhandling, theft, and prostitution. They adopt unique slang, develop strategies to prevent victimization using, and abusing drugs is viewed as normal. Homeless use drugs to avoid negative emotional effects, alleviate the stress of living on the streets, keep warm, suppress hunger, escape pain, and to stay awake all night to prevent victimization.
Where there are drug users, there are drug dealers. According to a study by American Prosecutors Research Institute (2005), one of every four arrested on illegal drug charges carried a firearm all or most of their time in drug involvement. And a quarter of them were under the influence when they were arrested. Drug abusers and dealers use guns to protect their turf and product, protect themselves during drug transactions, to commit crimes to obtain the funds to buy drugs, and sometimes guns are used as currency for drugs.
The headlines show the problems in Duluth are escalating making it imperative that drastic actions are taken now. If the city won’t do it for its top destination status, or the property owners that invest in downtown, maybe they will do it for the people – those that are feeling the effects of drug abuse and homelessness first hand, and those that are impacted by its side effects – being victimized, harassed, and fearing for their safety just trying to get to work. Or maybe the city will step up for the business owners working hard to make a living for themselves and others only to find customers to afraid to visit.
It’s time for our city leaders to stop seeking national notoriety and start focusing on what they were elected to do. The safety, economy, and well-being of all of Duluth should be their primary focus.