Duluth became the first city in the state to pass a resolution supporting the establishment of a Homeless Bill of Rights on Monday night.
"I see this Homeless Bill of Rights as a commitment that we have as a council to this issue and to solving this issue. I believe it is more than a symbolic statement. I believe it is a call to action, and it is a first step," said 3rd District City Councilor Sharla Gardner, who introduced the measure.
She said that too often, the struggles of homeless people go unrecognized.
"Homeless people and poor people are invisible to the council, because we don't see you. You don't come before us. And I
suggested that you organize," Gardner said, recalling the advice she'd offered to homeless constituents.
But, in talking to these same folks, Gardner said she came to realize they were truly fearful that they would not be welcome to share their views in a public forum.
"None of these folks have committed any crimes, but the fact is they believe they have fewer rights than the rest of us. Their experience bears that out. And I think it's really important that we as a community understand that," she said.
Gardner said the experience showed her that "I've been looking at this whole issue from a position of privilege, even though I mean well and want to do the right thing."
Steve Gallagher, 63, now lives in an apartment at Greysolon Plaza but said he has experienced homelessness off and on for most of his life. He thanked the council for its support of the Homeless Bill of Rights he helped draft. The document states that people who
lack homes should nevertheless enjoy the same rights to inhabit public places as other members of society.
"I know what it is to be homeless, and I know the harassment that goes with it," he said.
The resolution passed Monday directs the Duluth Human Rights Commission to examine the issue of homelessness and make recommendations about how the city can better respond to people's needs. The council passed it by a unanimous vote.
"As a community, I think we're really turning the corner on this issue. Big time," said 4th District Councilor Howie Hanson.
At Large City Councilor Emily Larson said the resolution shows the high priority Duluth is putting on providing decent places for people to live.
"It's my personal belief that housing is a human right," she said.
Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM, the operator of the largest homeless shelter in Duluth, praised the resolution and said: "We really look at this as a symbolic call for radical inclusion for everyone who makes their home among us."
At Large City Councilor Zack Filipovich said that more than one-third of Duluth's residents live below the poverty line and a significant number of these people are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. He said solving the issue must involve improving the economic development outlook for the city as a whole.
Stuart said the resolution should be viewed as commitment to do better, rather than a rebuke of past behavior by authorities.
"We at CHUM don't think that rights are violated on a regular basis, certainly not by the Duluth Police Department with whom we share a very strong partnership for mutual referral, problem-solving and security and safety for our guests. And if there problems or mistakes, we are confident that there are procedures in place that can take care of them," she said.
"We don't think the Bill of Rights should imply, nor does it imply, the right of anyone to break the law," Stuart said.
"We think the challenge is really to create and sustain housing that's appropriate for all of us, including those with low or no incomes," Stuart said. "This is our basic responsibility as a community. This Bill of Rights calls out to us as a community to figure out how to put our best thinking, our best policy and our resources to make homelessness rare among us."
Stuart views the council's action Monday not as a panacea but as a start.
"Will this end homelessness? No. But if it calls us to a deeper conversation about how we want to care for those who are most vulnerable among us, it's good," she said.