For the past year, we’ve brought attention to Duluth’s homeless crisis, and the detriment it is to the city, residents, and businesses. We’ve asked repeatedly for action and we’ve waited for a leader to immerge. In the last few weeks, stories of Duluth’s homeless population have been consistent in the local news and several ideas and plans have been reported on, unfortunately, none of them are looking to stymie homelessness, only accommodate it – the results of which are also being reported on, with the clean up of the Point of Rocks site.
Last fall, the Duluth Police Department was tasked with clearing out a homeless encampment at the Point of Rocks in Duluth’s Lincoln Park area near Mesaba Avenue and W. Superior Street. The camp was vacated last October but remained a literal garbage heap until a local man, Reece Townsend, saw posts complaining about the mess on social media and decided to step in to be the leader the city should have been in cleaning up the site. Late March, WDIO reported that they’d already removed four – 20-yard dumpsters from the site. Fox21 reported that over 30,000 pounds of garbage had been removed as well as 3,000 pounds of sheet metal. Garbage consisted of everything from bedding to food containers and cans, to newborn baby diapers. At some places in the encampment, the garbage was more than 6” deep.
When the homeless were removed from the site last year, they didn’t have the means to bring all their belongings, leaving the mess.
CHUM’s Street Outreach Director, Deb Holman, in an interview with Fox21 shared “We need a solution, we don’t have housing right now, the numbers [of homeless] are higher than ever.” A few days earlier Holman was interviewed in a story where CHUM was requesting tents for the homeless who had been using the warming centers this winter, which closed at the end of March. The irony of being interviewed along with the devastation that a homeless encampment left behind, and then begging for tents so another encampment can exist is not lost on us. That’s because the organizations in Duluth that are heavily funded to fix the homeless problem in our area, instead perpetuate it. Months ago, we reported on St. Louis County’s plan to end homelessness in 10 years – where they increased their spending on homeless prevention from a couple hundred thousand to over a million dollars a year only to see homelessness grow exponentially during the 10-year time period.
Homeless advocates cry for affordable housing, like the Steve O’Neil apartments, now a location that is known for the police presence constantly at its doors with overwhelming domestic, drug, and overdose calls since it’s opened. We must ask, is affordable housing the answer? What percent of the current homeless population would be helped by it? How many are physically, mentally, and socially stable enough to be able to use affordable housing to elevate themselves from homelessness to having a stable job, income, and family situation? Or will housing projects like the newly announced Downtown Duluth Inn just serve as another homeless perk that attracts more downtrodden to Duluth?
The Duluth News Tribune reported on CHUM’S upcoming acquisition of the Downtown Duluth Inn last week. The Inn is located between 1st and 2nd Avenue off of 2nd Street. During the pandemic, the Inn was used to quarantine the elderly at risk for COVID. CHUM is set to transition the building to housing for the homeless this May. The property will be funded primarily by St. Louis County providing $1 Million and the Greater MN Housing Fund providing gap funding. Duluth HRA and CHUM will provide minimal funding, $250,000 and $100,000 respectively, toward the $2.65 Million purchase price.
The purchase and plan for the site were approved without a health impact assessment or social assessment. A Health Impact Assessment and social assessments are commonly done to judge the potential health and social effects of a policy, program, or project on a population. Recommendations are produced for decision-makers and stakeholders, with the aim of maximizing the positive effects of, in this case, a project. Health Impact Assessments can be done by the Minnesota Department of Health.
The new project has business and property owners downtown up in arms about what the housing facility will do to exacerbate the devastating impacts homelessness has had on businesses and property owners downtown. Where is the logic in expanding the drug paraphernalia, public urination, garbage, panhandling, and other hallmarks of our local homeless population to yet another block of downtown – our city’s business center.
CHUM’s well-intentioned but misguided programs have created an environment that scares away businesses, employees, and tourists – and now they will be expanding.
CHUM reports there are 600 people annually that will be candidates for housing at the Downtown Duluth Inn location, yet they will only be able to offer 40-45 rooms of short and long-term housing. Five rooms will be used to provide crisis mental health services, while the staff will use the office space, and the hotel’s breakfast area will be available for “coffee & conversation”.
While most want to see a resolution to the growing homeless problem in our city the current programs are not working and with them, Duluth just keeps putting band-aids on the gaping wound of homelessness in our community.
Another recent story with a solution to homelessness was reported on KBJR last week promoting a program that asks private property owners to allow yurts to be built on their property for a homeless person/family. The program, led by the American Indian Movement, evaluates the homeless population for those who are willing to work to make an improvement in their lives. They then connect these people with volunteers and property owners to construct a yurt, a dome-shaped eyesore built of wood and covered with a tarp. AIM provides a wood stove and food, the homeowner is asked to work with the occupant to manage garbage – either letting the yurt-dweller use their garbage cans and collect the garbage themselves from the yurt. When it comes to hygiene, homeowners can provide a Port-a-Potty, allow the person in their house for showers and to use the bathroom, or the person can go to the Damiano Center for showers.
Currently, the city is not able to allow yurts to be placed on public property. The city’s communication director, Kate Van Daele told KBJR that this is because the “City of Duluth must ensure basic safety for those wanting to live in them.” You would think that this responsibility would apply to a private landowner as well. What is the liability of letting a homeless person live in a structure like this on your property? There are a million what-ifs that could cost a homeowner an incredible amount of money, if not their home if something were to happen – the yurt-dweller leaves at night and trips on a tree root and injures themselves, a storm comes through that causes damage to the dwelling that hurts the person, or what if they overdose on the property? What is the homeowners’ responsibility to the person? On the other hand, what is the homeowners’ responsibility to their neighbors? What if the person living in the yurt has an unknown criminal or sexual assault past and now you’ve moved them into your backyard adjacent to children, the elderly, and others that may be considered a target? How does having a homeless person camp in your yard impact the ability of neighbors to sell their property? The ramifications of this initiative are vast and potentially dangerous. Currently, there are three yurts in Duluth – one each in the Endion, East Hillside, and Mall area neighborhoods.
Fixing Duluth’s homeless crisis shouldn’t put the liability of housing a homeless person in Duluth on a homeowner, it shouldn’t have a direct negative impact on businesses, and it shouldn’t create 30,000 lb garbage piles that the city innocently ignores until kind resident picks up a shovel and leads them to take action.
It’s not just the homeless that need help in Duluth, the City needs help, and the organizations that help the homeless, like CHUM, need help – not financially, but through reviews by outside assessors that can uncover why their efforts to end homelessness are only bringing more homeless people to the area. Only then can programs be made, and inspired leaders be found that will get Duluth back on track as a place to live, grow, and do business.