When he opens the door to leave his apartment in the Central Hillside neighborhood of Duluth, Sheldon Rhodes steps directly onto the city sidewalk. The voices of passersby are only inches away through seemingly paper-thin walls when he rests on his couch.

But it’s a home — something that can be hard to come by for a person with a criminal record.

“I want to buy a building and have it where only people with evictions or felonies can stay there,” Rhodes, 43, said, citing two high-risk categories of renters. “You don’t got that, you can’t rent from us. To make that (stuff) cool, because they look down on that.”

Rhodes is one of 10 ex-convicts housed in the city as part of the year-old Landlord Incentives Program of St. Louis County. The program that started in May 2018 was developed out of a brainstorming session at the annual Housing for All Summit in Duluth. The goal is to mitigate risk for landlords and provide support services for tenants in their effort to maintain stable housing.

Through the modestly funded program, landlords are able to make claims up to $2,000 per tenant for things such as property damage, skipped rent or the sudden loss of a tenant.

“People with a criminal background were having difficulty finding housing, so that’s where it started,” Kim Holak said. “Many of the people I’ve housed come out of treatment or are just out of prison.”

Holak is the program coordinator and case manager working out of the Salvation Army in Duluth. She serves both tenants and landlords. There are two similar programs in other counties state-wide, she said, and the state of Minnesota is looking to expand the program from its pilot status.

So far, Holak has a list of more than 20 landlords willing to use the program. Jim Doyle is one of them. He owns a four-plex in the Denfeld neighborhood, and has for 50 years.

“It is necessary for people to be given a chance that are trying to improve themselves — trying to correct some mistakes they’ve made,” he said. “The $2,000 is kind of a safety net. It’s good to know if something happened the apartment can be restored to good condition.”

Prior to renting, Doyle investigated the tenant he has now, going so far as to talk with police as a reference. Eight months in, the experience has been a good one, he said, with no claims or calls for police — the fear of which is one of the additional barriers that keeps landlords from opening their doors to ex-convicts, sources said.

“They’ve tried hard,” Doyle said of his renter. “They’ve sought and maintained employment. Rent is always on time and the Salvation Army keeps tabs on them.”

In order to access the program, tenants with felony records have to be at imminent risk of homelessness and show they have a job. Nine of the 10 people currently housed through Holack’s efforts pay market rate, she said.

Rhodes fit the criteria. He’d lived 23 years in a relationship, but when that ended he was put out with nowhere to go.

“I had a buddy let me sleep on his couch,” Rhodes said. “I didn’t have a key for five days. Everything was always in her name. She was white. I’m a felon, in the penitentiary. I always had the money, but I never wanted them to run my name because it was so messed up.”

Rhodes is charismatic and likable, but not the most sympathetic figure. His criminal record shows like a CVS receipt, documenting scores of drug-related infractions and his most recent conviction in 2018 for felony criminal vehicular operation after Rhodes crashed a vehicle and injured a tow-truck driver who'd been working on the side of the road.

On probation, Rhodes walks most places now, he said, including to work at a restaurant in Canal Park. He's spent many of his free years working in the city's restaurant industry.

This summer, he plans to work 130 hours every two weeks and said he and his 12-year-old son spoil themselves with the fruits of his labor. Both have iPhones.

“Bosses love me,” he said. “My general manager right now, she’s gangsta. She’d ride with me no matter what.”

Rhodes pulled out his phone to show a picture of the grill over which he toils.

“That’s 35 hamburgers at one time!” he said.

On his drug-dealing and criminal background, Rhodes said, “I got tired of going to jail. I make more money now, filing taxes, and when I see the police I know they’re not looking for me.”

So far, Rhodes has been a model tenant, Holak said, paying rent early and now looking for a two-bedroom to advance into.

Another client of hers is moving out of his apartment and buying a house with his fiancée. Only one of her clients has washed out of the program, while some landlords have had to file property claims. Despite the success of the program to date, there’s one thing holding it back: Duluth’s well-documented housing shortage.

“I would be able to house more people,” Holak said, “if we had more housing.”