St. Louis County's homeless population increased by more than 23 percent between 2015 and 2018, according to a report released Wednesday.
It's not coincidental that the opioid epidemic was surging at the same time, Lee Stuart said.
"We did not have rampant opioid and drug use (in 2015)," said Stuart, the executive director of CHUM, a faith-based nonprofit that shelters and serves homeless people in Duluth. "Our analysis of this is (that) between 2015 and 2018 the biggest (thing) on the streets is drugs. And that's what is driving this."
Statewide, 10,233 Minnesotans were counted as homeless on Oct. 25, 2018, the highest number since Wilder Research began its triennial count in 1991 and a 10 percent increase since 2015.
The St. Louis County homeless count increased from 617 to 760 and included 71 children, according to the report. Among the county's homeless, 370 were in shelters and 390 were found in "non-shelter locations," such as encampments, hot-meal programs and drop-in service locations. That was a flip flop from three years earlier, when 340 of the homeless counted were in shelters and only 277 were not in shelters.
This mirrored the statewide numbers, which showed the number of those not in formal shelters rising from 1,662 in 2015 to 2,694 in 2018.
"In shelters, it's up a little bit but not much because we're full all the time," Stuart said.
CHUM lists its capacity as 80, and although it never puts out the "no vacancy" sign, some people can't tolerate crowded conditions, she said. "It's crowded. It's very crowded."
The homeless numbers aren't a surprise, said Katherine Mueller, development director for the Damiano Center, a nonprofit that provides meals, food and services to people in need in Duluth. Last year, the center's community kitchen served almost 117,000 meals, the biggest number since the peak of the recession.
The homeless numbers increased in the Twin Cities metro area by 9 percent and in Greater Minnesota by 13 percent over the three years, according to the report.
The numbers should be considered minimums, said a news release accompanying the report, since many who are homeless may not have been found on the day of the count, especially among youth and in rural areas.
One positive development? A 5-percent decrease in homeless families over the three years, said Rebecca Sales, a senior researcher for Wilder. The total number of families counted in St. Louis County dropped from 89 in 2015 to 84 in 2018.
There were increases, statewide, in homeless adults ages 55 and older (up 25 percent) and homeless adults ages 22-54 (up 20 percent), according to the report.
Those numbers partially reflect what Mueller has seen at the Damiano Center.
"We have actually noticed an increase in the number of elderly who are using our services," Mueller said. "I wouldn't say that we noticed a decrease in families using services."
The homeless are counted by two different agencies in Minnesota: a federal survey of all states every year and the Wilder survey every three years that's done only in Minnesota. The federal count is on the night of Jan. 23-24.
There are differences between the two, Sales said.
"We really do a larger outreach related to interviewing and getting in contact with people who aren't in shelter," she said.
The rest of Northeastern Minnesota - Koochiching, Itasca, Aitkin, Carlton, Lake and Cook counties - overcame the statewide trend. Wilder Research found 182 homeless individuals, including 76 in shelters and 106 not in shelters in 2018. That was down from 194 in 2015, when 145 homeless individuals were in shelters and 49 were outside of shelters. The number of homeless families dropped from 42 to 29.
Warming center review
The Duluth City Center West Warming Center, operated as a refuge for the homeless on subzero nights, was open for 29 nights starting Jan. 17, CHUM's Lee Stuart said.
It was open for 13 days in January, 11 in February and five in March, with average low temperatures of -16, -6 and -7, respectively.
A total of 681 people "signed in" to the center, and 599 of those stayed most or all of the night, for an average of 23 signed in and 21 staying most or all of the night. The smallest number was five on the first night, and the largest was 37. There were no police calls any of the nights the center was open, Stuart said, and only two medical calls - both for the same person.
"A lot of the fears that people had were proven unfounded," she said. "The people who came were very respectful of the space and each other. There was a tremendous outpouring of support from neighbors and the community."
It's yet to be determined if the center will be brought back next winter, Stuart said. Meanwhile, CHUM is considering having its drop-in center open all night year-round following the warming center model. Additional money would be needed to make that happen, she said.