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Duluth City Council aims to treat homeless with dignity

Two years ago Valerie Joekel was homeless, living out of her vehicle, and on repeated occasions she was approached by law enforcement officers asking her to move along.

"What crime is a woman really committing by being homeless? Homelessness is a stressful enough situation as it is, but then to be treated like a criminal too? Why? Because you're not paying rent somewhere? Because you don't have a place to eat or store foods you can eat?" she asked members of the Duluth City Council Monday night.

That same night, the council took up a resolution expressing community support for people experiencing homelessness and passed it by a unanimous vote.

CHUM's Deb Holman, an advocate for homeless people, praised the council for adopting a set of principles that had been four years and seven months in the making with direct input from people who had directly experienced homelessness.

The resolution alone laid out about a dozen basic rights the city would strive to uphold, but 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress said he also considered it a personal commitment to bring about real changes that could improve the lives of homeless people.

One of those changes received a first reading Monday night — a proposed ordinance that would end the city's ban on people living out of vehicles parked on public streets. A second reading will be required before the ordinance can go to a vote.

The council also unanimously passed a resolution asking city administration to look at the possibility of opening a hygiene facility, where homeless people could bathe, access a restroom and launder their clothes. Similar facilities have been opened in places such as Seattle, Wash., and Oahu, Hawaii.

Ashley Grimm, vice chair of Duluth's Human Rights Commission, said access to bathrooms emerged as a large concern for people experiencing homelessness.

"It's something we take for granted, but it affects whether or not you can get or keep a job and whether you get a citation for public urination," she said.

Joel Kilgour, an advocate with Loaves & Fishes, called on Duluth and the country to do a better job of addressing the root causes of homelessness — things like a lack of affordable housing, unmet mental health needs, addiction and the challenge of child care costs.

"Up until now, as a country we've really focused on the symptoms of homelessness, and the result of this is that individuals experiencing homelessness, the victims of homelessness, are the ones we've then criminalized, and that criminalization prolongs their homelessness and can lead to a lot of trauma for individuals and especially children," he said.

On related front, a proposed ordinance that would lift Duluth's ban on begging received a first reading. The ordinance won't be ready to go to a vote until its second reading, but a statement of purpose cited the dearth of other resources available to homeless people.

"No one wants to be living under a bridge. No one wants to be begging on a street corner. These might be in some people's eyes unsightly, but criminalizing it isn't going to fix the problem," Kilgour said.

The focus on making Duluth a more hospitable place for homeless people should not be misconstrued, said 3rd District Councilor Em Westerlund. She maintained the goal is to treat all people with dignity.

"We are not in any bestowing special rights" or "privileges" to anyone, Westerlund said.

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