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10 years in, Duluth's San Marco Apartments considered a model

San Marco Apartments resident Stevie Fullerton (left) receives a hug from fellow resident Lisa Ronnquist on Tuesday. Ronnquist was one of the facility’s first residents when it opened 10 years ago to provide stable housing for chronic alcoholics and others who might otherwise go homeless. Center City Housing is hosting a public event on Thursday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of San Marco’s opening. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Darrell Jones shows off his San Marco Striders cap in his room at San Marco Apartments. Members of the walking group receive hats and T-shirts after they’ve walked 100 miles. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
San Marco Apartments resident Erin Coons (left) and front desk employee Lucy Horvatich visit on Tuesday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Nearly 300 single adults have lived at one time or another at the 70-unit San Marco Apartments since it opened 10 years ago at 230 W. Third St. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

If not for the San Marco Apartments, Lisa Ronnquist, 60, said she'd probably have died homeless on the streets of Duluth by now.

"This place saved my life," she said.

Ronnquist was a chronic alcoholic when she came to the newly constructed San Marco 10 years ago as one of its first residents.

"Before we had this place, when we needed a place to sleep, we'd sometimes get drunk on purpose so we could check into detox. I've been in detox so many times, I couldn't begin to count," she said.

Homeless alcoholics were admitted to detox all too often, said Gary Olson, director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment in Duluth, one of the early advocates for supportive housing such as the San Marco provides.

He noted that Duluth's once-plentiful supply of inexpensive, one-room housing has dried up in recent years.

"Urban renewal came along, and they tore down all those flophouses, because they didn't meet codes and they weren't safe. It was one of those well-intended public policies that have unintended consequences," Olson said.

Almost simultaneously, Minnesota began to close many of its state hospital institutions.

"The combination of those two things really forced a whole population of these public inebriates into homelessness, and because of their homelessness and their alcoholism, they were dying at an alarming rate. The treatment model we were using was not effective," Olson said.

"So I started talking about supportive housing ... to get people off the street, to keep them alive, because dead people never recover," he said.

The San Marco is about to mark its 10th anniversary of operating in Duluth, where it provides shelter for 70 people who would otherwise be homeless, including 30 chronic alcoholics, all of whom have undergone chemical dependency treatment at least three times to no avail. Most of these chronic alcoholics also have logged significant time in detox and have paid repeat visits to an emergency room.

Nearly 300 single adults have lived at one time or another at the 70-unit San Marco Apartments since it opened 10 years ago.

The idea of placing a large population of problem drinkers in a single building initially raised concerns for local residents, including Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken.

"As a department, we were very concerned. ... One of the comments, I'd routinely hear is: 'Well, when that thing gets built, we're going to need to have a substation in it.' Because that's how many calls for service we thought we were going to have there," he recalled.

But in retrospect, Tusken said, "We couldn't have been off further. It runs well. They've had tremendous success stories."

"This was a controversial, charged, even contentious issue within our community," recalled David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, an organization that endured some sharp criticism for its initial support of the project.

But most of that opposition has since faded, according to Rick Klun, executive director of Center City Housing Corp., which owns the San Marco.

"I think there are some people who were skeptics that we won over, because they saw dramatic changes quickly in our community. In other words, the reduction of panhandling on Superior Street, the reduction of public urination in alleys and other things," he said.

Tusken said police saw a dramatic drop in the number of calls they received for public drunkenness.

Darrell Jones shows off his San Marco Striders cap in his room at San Marco Apartments.

Olson said the amount of time people spent in the local detox unit fell by 1,000 days per year after the San Marco opened.

Residents of the San Marco are allowed to drink in their rooms but are required to abide by five rules:

  • Respect staff, fellow residents and visitors
  • Refrain from any acts or threats of violence
  • Abstain from using illegal drugs
  • Pay rent in a timely fashion
  • Cause no intentional damage to the building

Klun rejects the notion that the San Marco provides an enabling environment for alcoholics.

"We believe that it's a recovery environment. If people choose to recover, we're going to support them 100 percent. But on the chronic alcoholic side of the building, these are people who are addicted to alcohol, and to disregard giving them housing because they can't follow a program is just unfair, because you wouldn't do that if somebody had cancer. It's a disease, and its an addiction," he said.

But when provided with stable living arrangements and supportive services at the San Marco, which is staffed around the clock, people can change.

Ronnquist said she has been sober for three years now, but she continues to reside in the portion of the building designated for chronic alcoholics rather than be separated from her friends there.

"We're all family," she said.

Klun said the San Marco has been such a success that Center City built similar facilities in St. Cloud and Rochester, and plans to soon open one in Bemidji, as well.

  • WHAT: Celebration of San Marco Apartments' 10-year anniversary
  • WHERE: 230 W. Third St.
  • WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, June 22
Peter Passi

Peter Passi covers Duluth city government and community issues. A graduate of Carleton College, he has worked as a reporter for more than 30 years and joined the Duluth News Tribune newsroom in 2000.

(218) 279-5526