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In 2007, St. Louis County launched a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Why didn’t it work?

A makeshift tent built around a small tree and apparently used by homeless people stands between the ore docks and Wade Stadium in West Duluth. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Veronica Ciurleo of Duluth Harbor Mission visits with Darren Wagner, one of the homeless people who stops at the mission. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

The handsome cover of the 48-page report showed photos of people in pairs, evoking human warmth and companionship.

The title was a message of hope: "Heading Home St. Louis County — A Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness."

The date was February 2007.

In the nearly 12 years since, much has been done to see that everyone in the county has adequate housing. The Steve O'Neil Apartments, with 44 units to provide long-term housing for families, opened in 2015 near downtown Duluth. Lutheran Social Service opened its Center for Changing Lives in the medical district in summer 2017. It provides housing for 10 youth on one floor and 10 young adults on another. The county and the Duluth school system have spearheaded new initiatives in identifying and helping the homeless.

But based both on the numbers and the observations of people working in the field, homelessness has not only remained, it seems to be as intractable as ever.

"There was a short time, actually, where I thought it was getting a little better," said Deb Holman, street outreach worker for CHUM, a faith-based local charity devoted to serving the homeless. "That was about a year ago. And now I look around and I go: What can we do with this person, that person? Because they either lost their housing voucher or didn't find anything so they've got another year-and-a-half waiting list."

894 households

A statistical measure of homelessness in Duluth comes from the coordinated entry homeless housing priority list, designed to funnel homeless individuals and families through one place so that those in the greatest need get served first.

On Nov. 1, 2016, 815 households — meaning a single person, a couple or a family — were on the list, said Kate Bradley, coordinated entry coordinator for St. Louis County with the Housing and Redevelopment Authority of Duluth. On Nov. 1 of this year, that number was 894.

Moreover, the number of homeless families with children in the Duluth area rose from 166 two years ago to 239 this year, she said.

The significance of the problem can be seen in this: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Duluth has 35,729 households. If 894 households are homeless, they comprise 2.5 percent of the total.

The problem may be hidden in plain sight, as homeless take refuge in shelters, on other people's couches and in makeshift campsites. Sometimes the (apparent) homeless may come into view, as when someone is approached by a panhandler or notices a bicycle laden with possessions.

Motorists driving on Interstate 35 through West Duluth recently may have noticed what appears to be a tent, or tents, between the Ore Docks and Wade Stadium.

Up close, it's a single structure made up of a variety of tarps and blankets tied securely to a small tree, almost like an upside-down nest. A thick blanket or sleeping bag can be seen in the snug, dark interior.

When a photographer and reporter visited, it was apparent no one had been inside at least since the last time it snowed. But some people do spend the entire winter at such sites, Bradley said.

"There are some folks who are very skilled at being outside year-round," she said. "And I think it's important to respect their ability to do that."

Singles and families

The number of homeless families surprised Bradley and others working with the homeless, who have sensed a decrease in the number of homeless families and an increase in the number of homeless older people who are on their own.

"We keep talking about more singles," Bradley said.

That was echoed by Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM.

"The number of families coming to shelter has dropped even though we have more units in family shelter now," she said.

The number of people staying in the shelter who are 50 and older has increased by 10 percent since she came to the job five years ago, Stuart added.

But Stuart cautioned there is no direct correlation between people who stay at CHUM and the overall homeless population. People with children will go elsewhere if they have any other options, she said, although over the past three years an average of 110 kids have spent at least one night at CHUM.

Likewise, the number of people on the coordinated entry list doesn't reflect the entire homeless population, Bradley said. Some might not bother with the process because they know there's so little potential housing available.

For example, Bradley said, four efficiency units are available for singles considered in need of transitional housing. "And there's a couple of hundred people in line for them. So we're pretty honest with those folks ... that really it's not likely."

The impact is felt in the Duluth schools. As of last week, almost 250 students in the school system were homeless, said Katie Danielson, coordinator for the district's Families in Transition program. Among them were 46 "unaccompanied youth" — kids on their own.

Every school in the district has homeless students in its population, Danielson said.

Addiction, etc.

One of Duluth's newest non-governmental efforts to meet the needs of the poor and homeless is Duluth Harbor Mission, located in a storefront on West Third Street in Lincoln Park. It opened 15 months ago, executive director Veronica Ciurleo said, although the organization formed in January 2016.

Open weekdays with meals, food and supplies offered, the mission has a particular focus on those struggling with addiction, Ciurleo said.

"The folks that have this addiction issue, they're not even able to get a place on their own," she said. "They can't mentally take care of themselves. So that's the focus that we have is to just try to have a place where they can be fed and have some basic needs met while they're out on the street or sleeping couch to couch."

Bradley agreed that addiction is contributing to homelessness, but added that people also are homeless because of massive medical expenses or because they are fleeing domestic violence.

But a key factor, people interviewed for this story said, is simply a lack of places for low-income people to live.

"We have lost some things," Bradley said. "The Carter Hotel and the Kozy and different places where people could get a quick, cheap place to live. Was it five-star? No. Did it keep people housed? Yeah, it did."

Duluth is only building an average of seven units of affordable housing a year, Stuart said. "That's not good enough. Every little bit helps, and I don't want to discount anything. It's just that I can't talk about ending homelessness anymore until we talk about the scale that's required."

Meanwhile, Stuart and others are trying to figure out how to deal with the increasingly chronic nature of homelessness.

In the past eight years, the percentage of first-time homeless at CHUM has dropped from close to 50 percent in 2010 and 2011 to fewer than 25 percent now, she said.

"The increasing demand is on the long-term recurrence, multiple times," Stuart said. "This now has become a structural part of our work. CHUM emergency shelter doesn't feel like the right word when 75 percent of the people are not in an emergency but in a recurrent horrible situation."

But in whatever form, no effort to end homelessness adds up if housing isn't part of the equation, Holman said.

"That coordinated entry system means nothing if you don't have the housing," she said. "That's what it's designed to do is move people in quicker. I think it does work if the units are available, but there's no units."

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A matchmaking service for housing

Although progress is discouragingly slow, St. Louis County and Duluth are taking leadership roles in attempting to overcome homelessness, people involved in the work say.

An example is the way the county administers its coordinated entry list.

St. Louis County is one of 10 COCs — Continuums of Care — in Minnesota that were designated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Kate Bradley, coordinated entry coordinator for the county. Hennepin and Ramsey counties each is also a COC, with the rest of the counties clustered into seven regions.

In 2012, HUD issued a requirement that each COC develop a coordinated entry list of its homeless population, so that housing would be provided in a fair, organized way. But there were variations in how fully the mandate was embraced.

"St. Louis County decided to put everybody on the list," Bradley said. "Some COCs said we're just going to start with singles, or we're just going to start with families, or we're just going to start with people in shelter. St. Louis County said if you're homeless, we're going to figure out a system that's going to work for you."

No one is required to be on the list. Those who do are assessed regarding such factors as mental, physical, chemical, social and legal health, Bradley said. That yields a score that places them in one of three tiers — permanent supportive, for those facing the highest barriers to be housed; transitional, for those in the middle ranges; and "rapid rehousing," for those with the lowest barriers.

When housing is available, it doesn't necessarily go to the household that been on the list the longest, and the household that's 894th on the list won't necessarily be the last assigned. Instead, Bradley said, it's more like a matchmaking service. The household that fits the qualification for the available housing and has the highest score will get first dibs.

"Some folks get on the priority list and miraculously the planets align and a unit opens up and you have the perfect score, and they're referred two weeks later," she said.

Others, such as singles whose scores place them in the rapid rehousing tier, are told, "I'm really sorry. No programs are pulling from the coordinated entry system currently for your score."

Homeless students in the Duluth schools who are on their own can be assessed for housing without leaving their school. That's because, near the beginning of this school year, Katie Danielson became the first school district employee in Minnesota qualified to conduct the assessments.

The goal is to minimize the impact on the students' education, said Danielson, the district's Families in Transition coordinator.

The assessment results are sent on to Bradley and so far have resulted in one student moved into transitional housing, Danielson added.

The county continues to innovate to chip away at homelessness, Bradley said. An annual housing summit, first inaugurated in the spring of 2013, spawned the Tenant-Landlord Connection to resolve disputes and prevent evictions. A landlord incentive program was established to encourage landlords to rent to people with criminal backgrounds.

Since July, CHUM has been able to house people who are under the influence in a separate room, executive director Lee Stuart said, although they are only allowed to sleep, not party. Also, Duluth Veterinary Hospital donated kennels and supplies so that people with pets can stay in another area of the shelter.

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To get help

If you live in St. Louis County and are:

  • Homeless now
  • Living somewhere without working utilities
  • Living with family and do not have space of your own, or
  • Going to be homeless in two weeks or less ...

Call United Way 211 or (800) 543-7709, and:

  • Make sure you're speaking with the Duluth 211 office
  • Ask for a "housing pre-screen"
  • Be ready to write down appointment information.
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