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Get to know Duluth's new downtown outreach worker

Residents can contact the new outreach specialist to notify her of someone who may be in need of social support services, like housing.

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Renée Graves, the new outreach specialist for Duluth's Greater Downtown Council's Clean and Safe Team and its partner, Block by Block, poses in the Holiday Center on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. For a couple weeks, Graves has been hitting the streets of downtown Duluth, connecting people who are homeless and others needing help to resources when they're ready to receive them. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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In her first couple of weeks serving as the new outreach specialist in downtown Duluth, Renée Graves is already helping to connect one man to accessible housing.

"I've been fortunate that this individual expressed he felt respected by me," Graves said. "He felt our encounter was genuine. … He also referred a friend to my services."

The downtown outreach specialist position was created after the Duluth City Council voted in September to approve $300,000 in American Rescue Plan funding to add to the Greater Downtown Council's Clean and Safe Team that's partnered with Block by Block, an organization with services around the country that the Downtown Council has been working with since 2005.

The social services outreach position is part of a pilot program that's currently funded for three years.

The proposal was part of the city's and GDC's response to downtown business owners raising concerns about panhandling, sidewalk defecations, disorderly conduct and drug use that's been especially highlighted during the pandemic with less people working from downtown.

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PREVIOUSLY:

"One of the things we know doesn't work is filling up a jail. What you need to do is get people healthy," Duluth Police Department Chief Mike Tusken told a room full of business owners and other downtown stakeholders Thursday during a community meeting. "There is a place in jail for people we're afraid of, but putting people in jail we're mad at is not a solution and it's never been a solution."
A lack of proper resources has led to that, however, Tusken said. Roughly two-thirds of people in the St. Louis County Jail are either diagnosed or undiagnosed with a mental illness or substance use disorder at any given time.

He referenced the police department's Mental Health Unit , staffed with social workers and a psychiatric nurse, and now Grave's position as just a couple of wrap-around services and tools working to address the root of the issues without criminalizing mental illness. A collaborative effort to create a wider-reaching community crisis response is also in the works.

RELATED: Duluth, Carlton County law enforcement to bolster mental health response
As the downtown outreach specialist, Graves will take some of the demand off police officers by connecting underserved people with resources.

Her main focus area will be between the Fitger's Complex and the Duluth Public Library, but the district technically runs from Mesaba Avenue to 10th Avenue East and from Canal Park up to Second Street. When she's not helping people, she'll be walking around finding people to work with.

Community members can call her from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday to request help or point her in the direction of someone who might need it.

"Unless I'm actively engaged with an individual seeking assistance, I am available to take those calls and go meet with an individual. That community might be providing me with an opportunity to meet somebody who I haven't connected with," Graves said. "Calling me not only allows me to meet those individuals, but hopefully de-escalate a situation before it might come to the point of needing law enforcement to respond."

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Clean and Safe Team member Rick Cauchon visits with Renée Graves while walking through the Holiday Center on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Cauchon and his co-workers tell Graves of people who may need help that they see. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Graves, who grew up in Duluth's Spirit Valley neighborhood, remembers struggling with housing security while her single mom put herself through college. She lived in the Pacific Northwest for a few years before moving back to Duluth in 2010. She's working toward a doctorate in public health.

While the ultimate goal is to find housing for the people she's meeting, Graves said there are often 15 other steps that need to be addressed before that's a viable option, including something as basic as accessing a birth certificate to get a government-issued ID.

That's why, Graves said, it's so important Duluth's resource and service community is ready to open its doors and collaborate. She often only has a small window of time before someone decides they no longer want help.

"I may approach someone five times and have them say, 'I'm sorry, Renée — I'm just not interested,' and that sixth time, out of the blue, they might say, 'Today I'm ready,'" she said. "It's really important to be able to make things happen in their time."

Graves' job also entails advocating for downtown businesses.

"They do need someone to call when it's a nonemergent situation to say, 'Hey, a customer just told me they felt uncomfortable being approached for money by an individual who's parked outside of our store,'" Graves said. "Calling me not only allows me to meet those individuals, but hopefully de-escalate a situation before it might come to the point of needing law enforcement to respond."

Graves spent her first two weeks on the job doing training with Block by Block.

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To reach Renée Graves on her cellphone, text or call 218-340-8274. Her office number is 218-727-8317. Her email is rgraves@blockbyblock.com .

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