The Duluth City Council unanimously resolved to tackle the adverse effects of homelessness this past week.
It's not the first time councilors have vowed to address the issue, but so far little tangible progress has come of those efforts, noted Joel Kilgour, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness and a member of Loaves and Fishes.
He praised the latest resolution yet held councilors to account, citing what he called "three uncomfortable facts."
"Number one is that Duluth is the least-affordable housing market in the state and has been for many, many years. For many years in the face of this crisis, we've talked about the need for housing across the spectrum, and that's true, but on the very low end, when we're talking about people in subsidized housing, the vacancy rate is less than 2 percent. And those are the folks who are most likely to end up on the street without an affordable housing solution. While this crisis is going on, unfortunately the city has focused a lot of its staff time and a lot of our resources on creating housing for people with a lot more resources," Kilgour said.
"The number two uncomfortable fact is that because of that lack of affordable housing, there are many of our neighbors who are living on the street, and Duluth, unlike almost every other major city in the state of Minnesota, does not contribute financially to an emergency shelter for its own people. We rely on the nonprofit sector to do that entirely," he said.
"The third uncomfortable fact is that the Homeless Person's Bill of Rights Coalition has been around for three years and that folks who have found themselves in this position and who have found that they've been treated unfairly or were unable to carry out basic life-sustaining activities like sleeping because of existing city laws or policies, have been asking for changes, have been asking for an ordinance for three years now and it hasn't happened," Kilgour said.
The city must do a better job, said 1st District City Councilor Gary Anderson. He noted that the lack of low- to moderate-cost housing in Duluth has been well documented.
"According to the Maxfield study which was done in April of 2014, at that time it was determined that we needed approximately 2,482 units of rental housing for people who earn 50 to 80 percent of median income. Of those 2,482 units, we've only actually successfully created 336," he said.
"We've just barely touched the need for that particular group, and that contrasts with the need for full-market-rate apartments," Anderson said. "It was determined that we needed 1,092 of those units. Well, guess what? We've overdone it there. We've created 1,318 units."
While Anderson expressed thanks for the developers who have stepped up to boost the local inventory of rental housing, he called on his colleagues and the city to focus now on the unmet need for less expensive units.
"It's the harder work that we have to do to really get going on ... addressing the real needs of low- and moderate-income families. Let's use this resolution as a step for today, but let's double down on our efforts to do the hard work that's ahead of us," he said Monday.
William Unger, a homeless man who has been living at the Dorothy Day House in Duluth for the past month, said that addressing a person's most basic needs can be a challenge for those without a home.
"Where does a person go to the bathroom? And where do they shower? You can't always shower at CHUM (the operator of a homeless shelter in Duluth). It's full. People are sleeping on the floors," he said.
Unger told councilors that the experience of being homeless takes an emotional toll, too.
"I don't know any of you, but I thank you for letting me talk about this issue and getting down to it, because being a homeless person, you're degraded. You're looked down upon. Your confidence goes down," he said.
Council President Joel Sipress acknowledged previous resolutions on many fronts have failed to appreciably improve the scene for homeless people in Duluth. He also warned that the council risked making empty promises at its own "moral peril."
"I think the real test of whether we mean what we say when we pass this resolution is if we take those words and over the forthcoming months and years and turn those words into concrete action. So I think we need to challenge ourselves, each of us, to kind of say to ourselves: What is going to be our measure of success?" he said.
Sipress called for the council to move forward with a Homeless People's Bill of Rights, ensuring that no one is unduly harassed for peacefully occupying a public space. He also said something should be done to address the need for public restrooms and washrooms.
"Everybody up here who's voting on this takes for granted that if you've got to use the bathroom, it's no big deal. Everyone up here takes for granted that if you need to wash up, if you need to clean yourself for a job interview, it's no big deal. I don't mean this in an accusatory way, but I've been stunned to discover how complicated it seems to be to provide to everyone in our community something that is so simple for everyone who is up here right now.
"So yes, it's complicated. Yes, someone's going to have to pay for it. Yes, we'll need to find the right location. But for me at least, personally, that should be one of our measures. If we vote for this resolution and pass it and cannot find the concrete solutions for things like that, at that point this resolution becomes meaningless. But I'm optimistic that this resolution was intended - in fact I know this resolution was intended - to be meaningful," Sipress said.