The face of homelessness, were it to be found on Jason Kemp, is a complex one.

The young man wears stubble and his past stress on his visage in equal measure, but he retains a glimmer of youth. His is a nomadic existence, moving about from Illinois to Texas to Duluth to every city one can name on the Iron Range. On couches, incarcerated behind bars, in cars and hallways, in cracks, through which people such as Kemp can fall when their mental illness goes untreated and misunderstood. Until finally, on Wednesday, he found himself among friends at the St. Louis County’s Plan to End Homelessness summit at First United Methodist Church.

“I wanted to add my two cents,” he said.

The second annual summit featured roughly 100 advocates from agencies and councils and nonprofits galore, and more than a few people who presently are homeless or, such as Kemp, formerly so. Kemp’s is the story of one person the summit hopes it can writ large - a success story.  

“I’d do everything differently,” he said. “I’d finish school. I wouldn’t drink. I’ve learned a lot.”

Now properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he is on Social Security Disability, living in a Housing and Redevelopment Authority unit on the Iron Range with his new wife. Stability has been introduced into Kemp’s life.

The summit aims to reproduce stability, such as Kemp’s, over a broader swath of the homeless population. One speaker at the summit put it simply by saying that without a stable roof, life introduces many hardships.

Anita Savela-Gornik is the shelter manager for Bill’s House in Virginia. She’s a homeless and basic-needs case manager, too. Now, as the season warms, she said people without homes shift from unheated garages and laundry rooms to homemade camps off biking trails. The homeless population is counted every August. Savela-Gornik can spot the “little encampments” along the Mesabi Trail. The counts help produce figures such as the following one offered up by the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, Savela-Gornik’s employer: “On a single day, 752 people were known to be homeless in St. Louis County.”

“Many receive just a small amount of money, $203 general assistance,” she said. Trusting, “they’ll pay it to someone and a couple of days later they get kicked out with nothing at all.”

The summit’s attendees broke into several groups for a good portion of the day, each under a different banner such as “outreach gaps” or “public awareness” or “stable and affordable housing.” Their goal was to brainstorm and come up with ideas that would be achievable before the next summit a year from now. Last year’s summit resulted in 14 successful measures, such as opening a needle exchange in Duluth, the city’s adoption of a Homeless Bill of Rights and the Iron Range’s landlord-tenant forums.

“Next year, we don’t want to be talking about the same things,” Savela-Gornik said. “We want to be talking about what’s next. It’s a chain reaction and we’re seeing that phenomenon.”

Kemp hopes the chain reaction is a familial one. He met his brother at the summit. He fits under the category of “presently homeless.”      

Said Kemp, “I’m going to ask my wife if he can stay with us for a while.”

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