It will no longer be against Duluth city code to panhandle or sleep in a parked vehicle.

By an 8-0 vote, with 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle absent, the Duluth City Council lifted the two bans Monday night.

Sleeping on wheels

Elizabeth Brown said she fled to Duluth a couple years ago to escape domestic violence, living out of her car for a time as she looked for work and tried to make ends meet. Even though she found employment, Brown said she was unable to afford a home of her own for a while and continued to sleep in her car instead, all the while attempting to avoid a run-in with police.

Brown said her life since has stabilized, and she now has a proper roof over her head. But if not for the time spent surreptitiously sleeping in her vehicle, Brown suspects she wouldn't be the productive member of society she is today.

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"A lot of good, hard-working people end up in their cars, and it's better than being on the street," she said.

Ashley Grimm, a member of the Duluth Human Rights Commission, said the city's ban on sleeping in vehicles didn't prevent people from doing so.

"But it does cause instability. It stigmatizes people. And it allows for a certain level of harassment," she said.

Grimm noted that eliminating the prohibition on living out of a vehicle won't prevent police officers from doing welfare checks.

"Our issue is poverty and homelessness, and until we're really able to address that, the least we can do is provide this human dignity to people," she said.

While the council lifted the ban on sleeping in vehicles Monday night, 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress said the city was not legalizing the use of a vehicle as a permanent residence.

"Our zoning code has strict standards for what's considered appropriate housing, and we're not in any way rescinding the protections we have for what constitutes an appropriate housing situation," he said.

At Large Councilor Barb Russ said: "Everyone has a right to decent housing in the city of Duluth. So we need to continue to have that focus."

But in the meantime, she said, "We still have some things that we can do to make life a little easier and to support folks."

Panhandling

Even though existing city code had forbidden public begging, the law had not been enforced in recent years, as similar restrictions in other communities were struck down by court decisions.

City Attorney Gunnar Johnson explained: "The solicitation of money is closely intertwined with speech, and of course the First Amendment protects free speech."

He stressed that even if the ban was repealed, police would still have authority to crack down on other types of problem conduct occasionally associated with panhandling, such as disorderly conduct, assault, blocking sidewalks or impeding motorized traffic.

"The constitutional issue alone makes this a no-brainer," said At Large Councilor Zack Filipovich.

"Obviously it's the right thing to do, and the additional fact that city administration, the mayor and the police chief have been enforcing the law as we are about to pass it tonight just shows that this should be repealed," he said.

Russ, who co-sponsored the proposed ordinance change, acknowledged some public skepticism about the council's move to lift the ban on panhandling but suggested the city can handle problem behavior if and when it arises.

"We've all received a few emails from people who have had some very bad experiences ... feeling threatened and afraid," she said. Russ said such conduct will not be tolerated and should be reported to police.

"Let law enforcement know the location of the person who is threatening you or others, because they want to know about that. They want to know if there are certain hot spots in town, so they can respond and do something about it," she said.