The North Shore city where homelessness is a growing problem is looking for new solutions, including a Homeless Bill of Rights.
DULUTH – Deb Holman knows the homeless here not only by name but by habit. One man comes by Mitch’s Bar and Grill for a coke. Two guys stop in the Little Store every day. Another always gets lunch at the Salvation Army.
When temperatures fall, as they have dramatically in recent weeks, Holman checks their haunts, hands out blankets and drives some to shelters. But the outreach worker is gripped by the thought of those she has not yet met.
“People know: ‘Call Deb,’ ” said Holman, who works for both the Human Development Center and Churches United in Ministry, or CHUM. “But still we miss people. There are the hidden ones.”
Duluth is dreaming up new ways to tackle the long-standing — and by some measures, growing — problem of homelessness in the face of below-zero highs. After controversy arose last fall about a dozen people living in an area below a freeway overpass, dubbed “Graffiti Graveyard,” advocates, city officials and others started meeting weekly, throwing out ideas. Among them: emergency warming shelters, tiny houses and a so-called “Homeless Bill of Rights.”
City Council Member Sharla Gardner will introduce on Monday a resolution in support of that bill of rights, which would prohibit discrimination based on housing status and protect the right to move and rest in public spaces without harassment, among other things. A few states, including Illinois, have passed similar legislation and others are working on it, said Michael Stoops, of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“As someone who’s done this work for four decades,” he said, “I’m amazed at the momentum that’s out there.”
No other Minnesota cities have passed such a law, and it is unlikely to get traction at the state level. While the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless supports Duluth’s work, “we’re trying to focus our efforts on creating more housing,” said Liz Kuoppala, executive director. The group is pushing for $100 million for affordable housing from the Legislature.
In some states, homeless bills of rights have drawn criticism from police and business owners concerned that they could hinder efforts to keep neighborhoods safe. The Duluth Police Department has not yet commented on the proposal. “We have not studied it enough,” said police spokesman Jim Hansen. The ordinance is still being drafted.
Gardner’s broader goal is to end homelessness, she said, and believes that current efforts have done too little.
“This bill of rights is going to lay a foundation from which we can form decent public policy,” Gardner said, “so that we can address the economic concerns … in our community with humanity.”
‘Promise me …’
All 47 beds were taken last week at the shelter run by CHUM. But Holman could offer sleeping pads and shelter from temperatures that, one night, reached 17 below zero.
“Promise me you won’t sleep outside tonight,” she told one man, in parting. She clutched blankets and gloves that she’d later deliver to a homeless camp on a bluff overlooking the harbor. Tan and green tarps, tied in the pines, covered its collection of tents and plastic crates.
The Northland has long counted a higher rate of people lacking reliable housing than most other parts of the state. In 2012, for every 10,000 people in seven northeast counties, including Duluth’s St. Louis County, there were 33 homeless people — compared to 23 in the Twin Cities, according to Wilder Research.
That’s due to a higher rate of poverty, lower wages and a tight rental market, said Joel Kilgour, of Loaves and Fishes. “We have people that are ready for housing, but there just isn’t any available.”
CHUM served 1,081 people in its emergency shelter and family housing program in 2012 — up 17 percent from the year before and 70 percent from 2003. “And we’ll be up more than 10 percent” in 2013, said Lee Stuart, executive director.
Stuart partly blames the increase on the loss of more than 150 units of affordable housing, rental properties that have been sold to developers and others. “And I just heard there were another 20 units sold over here,” she said, gesturing out her office window. She also worries about new strains, including cuts to federal rental assistance vouchers.
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