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In response: Give container housing a chance

Creative solution can help end homelessness

I was glad to see the News Tribune initiate a dialogue about the possibilities of developing container housing to provide people with high barriers to housing with decent places to live. We certainly need a variety of viewpoints to ensure an optimal outcome to our housing issues.

That being said, I was concerned by the extremely negative tone adopted toward the container-housing concept in the newspaper’s editorials of April 20 and April 21.

As the councilor who sponsored the resolution empowering the Human Rights Commission to develop a Homeless Bill of Rights, I’ve been working with organizations and individuals committed to ending homelessness in Duluth. As the Third District city councilor, I represent all of the people residing and doing business in the district, including in downtown and in the hillside. As a member of Duluth’s Downtown Waterfront District Advisory Board, I’ve listened to and engaged in discussions with a number of downtown business owners.

The consensus from these diverse entities is this: People with high barriers to housing need a place in which to reside, particularly in Duluth’s climate. They need a place in which they have access to plumbing, where they can leave their belongings, and where they can eat and rest. There’s a need for a multifaceted approach to end homelessness.

These groups also agree that ending the problem of homelessness in Duluth is a top priority because human lives are on the line. Every year CHUM hosts a vigil memorializing hundreds of people who died on Duluth’s streets as a result of having nowhere to live.

We can do better than that. And we will if we understand that different people have differing housing needs. Not everyone is suited for apartment living. People with high barriers to finding housing may be autistic, some may have a dog that is an essential companion, some are veterans suffering from the effects of combat and others have mental-health problems requiring medication and supervision.

The village community concept (composed of clusters of container houses) under development by Center City Housing leaders and architect Doug Zaun is a legitimate idea worth exploring. The concept includes plans to have a mental-health professional on-site who would act as a service coordinator in each village. That person would be a resource, providing structure and medication for those with mental-health issues.

It is simply untrue that most people experiencing homelessness don’t want services, as Duluth’s police chief suggested in the April 21 editorial. While the police do often encounter those who are resistant to services, they are in fact a very small minority.

Container housing is not a distraction from the need to develop housing for people of all income levels in our community, as the mayor suggested, also in the April 21 editorial. In fact, container housing can be part of a much-needed holistic approach to Duluth’s housing shortage. So-called “workforce housing,” by the city administration’s definition, only would serve those whose annual income is between $40,000 and $80,000.

Housing for those with very low incomes will not be solved by the free market. Affordable housing does not and will not trickle down to the poor. In a city like Duluth, where 54 percent of the workforce benefits from a minimum-wage increase, we must balance our city’s housing needs and take into account the entire economic spectrum.

As a public policymaker, I am glad to be a part of a thoughtful and community-based approach on the issue of homelessness, involving multiple entities engaged in solving this problem. Container housing can be a creative and cost-effective solution to part of the problem of homelessness in Duluth. It’s a concept that deserves a chance.


Sharla Gardner represents District 3 on the Duluth City Council.