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Homelessness advocacy conference comes to Duluth

From Senta Leff's perspective, homelessness isn't a given.

"This is our society's most solvable ill," she said. "It's only been here about 35 years. And if it hasn't always been here that means it doesn't have to stay."

Solving the problem might put Leff out of a job. She's executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless and will be one of close to 600 people in Duluth the rest of this week for the group's annual conference.

Among them will be more than 30 people attending on scholarships who either are experiencing, or have experienced, homelessness themselves, said Matt Traynor, organizing director for the coalition.

Traynor, who formerly fought homelessness on the local level with CHUM, has been the legislative liaison and statewide organizer for the statewide coalition since February 2017. He's still based out of Duluth, except during the legislative session.

The conference always takes place in Greater Minnesota, Leff said, and has grown to the point that there's a limited number of places that can accommodate it. In Duluth, it will take place Thursday and Friday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. It will be preceded by a forum on housing for the major party candidates for lieutenant governor. That will take place this evening in the Harbor Side Ballroom at the DECC.

Traynor likes having all of that here, he said.

"I just like all the energy and the attention that it brings to Duluth," Traynor said. "I feel like it connects Duluth to the rest of the state, that ... we're in this together."

The coalition that Leff has led for three years has been in existence for 34. That's significant, she said, because it formed when homelessness first was becoming a serious problem.

She said the current problem stems from the early 1980s when the Department of Housing and Urban Development's budget was cut by nearly 70 percent and state hospitals were deinstitutionalized.

Before then, homelessness was largely a condition affecting a small number of single men, she said. Now, half of all homeless people are children, and half of those are younger than 5.

But that trend can be reversed, Leff said.

Leff is also co-chairwoman of Homes For All, a coalition whose advocacy has led to $400 million in investments in affordable housing statewide since 2011, she said. Results are being seen, she added. Two states have ended homelessness for veterans, she said, and Minnesota is in line to become the third.

The coalition primarily advocates on behalf of policies aimed at ending homelessness, she said, although an agenda isn't yet in place for the 2019 legislative session.

Minnesota NAHRO — the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials — also is meeting at the DECC this week with another 200 or so people in attendance.

"There's 800 housing advocates in town," Leff said.

If you go

  • What: Homes For All lieutenant governor forum
  • Who: Candidates Donna Bergstrom and Peggy Flanagan
  • When: Wednesday — 5 p.m. registration, 5:30 p.m. forum, 6:30 p.m. registration
  • Where: Harbor Side Ballroom at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center
  • How much: Free
  • Note: No campaign clothing, buttons or related items will be allowed in the forum.