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As homeless crisis worsens, Duluthians strive for new solutions

A bus tour last week highlighted new depths to the unsheltered living crisis in the Northland, while also offering hope in the form of cutting-edge solutions and a five-year plan to add housing capacity.

People crowd around speaker surrounded by tiny homes in winter
Gabrielle Clowdus, co-founder of Settled, addresses a Duluth contingent Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, from a sample tiny home village located in St. Paul. The units showcased in the photo cost roughly $45,000-50,000 each and were built by faith congregations to be housed on church properties in what are called "sacred settlements."
Brady Slater / Duluth News Tribune
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As an unsheltered-living crisis reaches new depths of despair in the Northland, a contingent from Duluth took part in a bus tour last week of next-level solutions to homelessness being modeled in the Twin Cities.

The eye-opening, 14-hour tour found Duluth business, advocacy and civic leaders walking through tiny-home villages, as well as individual living units sheltered in a warehouse, and hearing from experts on the front lines about an unfolding crisis growing worse by the year.

“We need your help,” said John Cole, executive director of Duluth’s faith-based shelter Chum. “That’s why you’re on this bus today — to look at all the models and possibilities and to commit to working with us.”

The tour coincided with the rollout of a five-year, $32.2 million plan dubbed “Stepping on Up.” Authored by a host of nonprofits confronting the unsheltered living crisis, the plan is aimed at combating what Joel Kilgour called an “extreme housing crisis” by bringing 300 new transitional and permanent housing units to the Northland as soon as 2025.

John Cole
John Cole, executive director of Chum, organized the Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, bus tour of homeless solutions in the Twin Cities. He's building support for a $33.2 million effort to bring 300 new transition and permanent housing units to Duluth by 2026.
Brady Slater / Duluth News Tribune

“We haven’t been able to create housing at a scale that will actually make a difference,” said Kilgour, representing Loaves and Fishes. “In fact, some years we lose as much naturally occurring affordable housing as we develop.”

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In attending the tour, the News Tribune heard stark new details about the homeless experience in Duluth, where 71 unsheltered people have died so far in 2021, and the city’s complement of 155 shelter beds are overflowing, stressing facilities and people to untold new degrees.

A warming center, opened in recent years as an emergency space to aid unsheltered people in surviving subzero nights, has become a main source of shelter for upwards of 60 people a night, Kilgour told attendees.

“We’re hitting our capacity,” Kilgour said.

Duluth City Councilor Arik Forsman, far right, asks questions of Gabrielle Clowdus
Duluth City Councilor Arik Forsman, far right, asks questions of Gabrielle Clowdus, far left, during a Duluth contingent's coach bus tour of homeless solutions in the Twin Cities on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.
Brady Slater / Duluth News Tribune

Additionally, the city’s “coordinated entry point,” an attempt to funnel people in need onto a single wait list, shows 1,321 households, mostly singles and partners, in need of housing.

Chronic homelessness was identified as the fastest growing demographic, and one that soaks up 80% of available resources. It’s a particularly cruel existence, participants learned, which forces people into daily survival mode and prevents them from accessing the brain’s executive functions responsible for an individual’s long-term planning.

“The situation is worse than I thought,” Gabrielle Clowdus told the Duluth contingent, regarding her studies of homelessness. “And current solutions are not going to work long-term.”

Clowdus is a University of Minnesota research fellow studying poverty and the co-founder of Settled, which has developed a model to place modest tiny home villages on land owned by churches and faith-based groups. Dubbed “sacred settlements,” the villages incorporate “missionals” — people who aren’t adversely affected by homelessness — to live among the group and aid in developing a sense of community as formerly unsheltered folks reacclimate to secure, sheltered living.

Two men enter and exit a tiny home
Members of Duluth's bus tour of homeless solutions in the Twin Cities visited a tiny home outside Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. The units showcased on the tour cost roughly $45,000-50,000 each and were built by faith congregations to be housed on church properties in what are called "sacred settlements."
Brady Slater / Duluth News Tribune

Previous solutions often failed to take into account the lived homeless experience. People surviving on their own can fail to trust shelters, sources said, which, in turn, keeps them at arm’s length from access to services aimed at helping them.

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Another potential solution, Avivo Village (1900 Chicago Ave., Minneapolis), seemed to combat trust issues by presenting people with built-in autonomy. Avivo features 100 single-unit dwellings inside a staffed warehouse. Residents share bathrooms, showers and meals, but they’re able to shut and lock their doors in a dormitory-style apartment.

“Having their own door is life-changing,” said Ieasha Young, who has previously experienced homelessness and is now working for Chum in Duluth.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson attended the tours, and previously worked at Chum for 13 years. She favored the Avivo model for Duluth, saying it “absolutely” could work on a smaller scale.

“It’s really people-centered and seemed to be working,” Larson said.

Neither the city of Duluth nor St. Louis County has pledged specific financial support to the $33.2 million plan presented to the local governments by Chum, the American Indian Community Housing Organization, the Human Development Center, Lifehouse, Loaves and Fishes, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, Safe Haven, and the Salvation Army.

Woman wearing a mask that says "end homelessness"
Courtney Cochran, of St. Louis County, wears a face mask promoting an end to homelessness during a Duluth-based bus tour of homeless solutions in the Twin Cities on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.
Brady Slater / Duluth News Tribune

But both local governments have already begun to identify American Rescue Plan Act funds, which need to be spent by 2026, for housing solutions, including $19.2 million from the city to promote affordable housing development .

“There is the inherent silent commitment that some of our (American Rescue Plan Act) money, in particular, can go to some of these options,” Larson said.

St. Louis County has set aside $4 million of its federal rescue monies for housing projects, and the county confirmed it has just finished developing an eligibility and application process for those funds.

While homelessness is a worsening problem both locally and nationally, there was a time not long ago the Northland believed it could eradicate the problem.

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In 2007, the county adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Yet even as solutions like the Steve O’Neil Apartments and the Center for Changing Lives sprouted up to offer sheltered living complete with services to help adults and young people, waves of devastating drugs have conspired with a housing crunch and mental-health crisis to set back progress and leave shelter operators well-beyond capacity.

“The consequences of this crisis are touching all of our lives,” Kilgour said, describing public health issues with people living on the streets and conducting basic daily functions out in the open.

For Cole, the new top executive at Chum, the landscape has changed. The notion of ending homelessness isn’t even part of the five-year plan to add 300 new units of housing to Duluth.

“My experience has told me there will always be people slipping into homelessness,” Cole told the newspaper. “What we’re trying to do is put the resources, the structure and systems in place to build a capacity, so that when a person does become homeless there’s a way to exit out of it as quickly as possible.”

Aboard the bus filled with members of the Greater Downtown Council, Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, faith leaders, affordable housing advocates, and government officials, Cole, at one point, took a head count to make sure everyone was accounted for.

“That’s all of us — the best and brightest of Duluth,” he said. “There are lots of people counting on you.”

Brady Slater is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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