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.
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.