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A housing report by the city of Duluth shows an average vacancy rate of 4.1 percent, a number that shrinks in some of the city’s lower-rent neighborhoods. For public housing, the vacancy rate was 3 percent in 2012. Just 1 percent of federal housing vouchers went unused, while the waiting list for those vouchers swelled by 69 percent between 2007 and 2012, the April report found.
Advocates are buoyed by the December groundbreaking of a 44-unit, $12.6 million apartment complex for families who have experienced chronic homelessness. But they’re also looking for faster fixes.
“That’s great, but it took about four years to build it,” Stuart said. “And it’s not going to be done for another year.”
A bill of rights
Raised in orphanages and foster homes, Steve Gallagher has struggled with housing “pretty much all my life,” he said. On the streets, passersby sometimes shouted at him to “get a job,” and police officers confronted him when he’d try to rest his bad knees or sleep.
That’s why Gallagher, 63, is helping craft and promote the Homeless Bill of Rights. It’s unlikely that an older woman sitting on a bench, sewing “will be told to move along,” Gardner said. But a person who is homeless might get an inquisition. “He has the same right to sit on a bench and watch the world go by for a couple hours on a summer day,” she said.
But Gardner is quick to point out that the ordinance would not excuse breaking the law: “If someone is homeless and doing drugs on a park bench, they’re going to get arrested — and they should get arrested.”
While police officers’ “primary tool is the criminal justice system … we have a broad network of community resources we can draw from,” said Nick Lepak, a downtown officer. Lepak regularly connects homeless people with such organizations as Loaves and Fishes and people like Holman.
It was a police officer who referred Gallagher to the Dorothy Day House, where he stayed before getting a federal voucher for an apartment. He now lives in Greysolon Plaza with his 5-year-old Akita husky that he bottle fed as a pup.
“It’s got a little kitchen, but it’s nice,” Gallagher said. “It’s perfect for me.”
Despite its petulant weather, Duluth counts a bigger share than the metro area of homeless people who are living outdoors, rather than in shelters or transitional housing.
An annual January count of unsheltered people in Duluth found that more than half had “severe mental illness,” according to the housing report. Others cited chronic substance abuse and felony convictions. Ten of the 94 people counted in 2013 were veterans.
Ed Carlson, bearded and bundled, approached Holman’s office one morning last week clutching a cup of coffee. “I wanted to talk to you about the rent,” he said.
From 1995 until a few weeks ago, Ed Carlson slept outside using a tent and supplies he could fit in two saddle bags on his bicycle. Carlson, “an honorably discharged veteran,” as he put it, has post-traumatic stress disorder. He can’t handle the shelter.
But “I’m getting too old” to keep sleeping outdoors, said Carlson, 52.
So Holman helped him find an apartment, partly paid for through the federal Shelter Plus Care Program for people who are homeless and have disabilities. Carlson slept outside on a Friday night in late December. The next day, he got the keys to his apartment.
Photographer Glen Stubbe contributed to this report.