As a social work student at the College of St. Scholastica, Erika Blesener is preparing for a career of helping people in need.

But the volunteer work the junior from Cloquet did Thursday showed her a side of that need in a way she hadn’t seen.

“I’ve never really worked with this population before,” Blesener said after a two-hour shift filling out survey forms with homeless people who came to the Damiano Center in the heart of Duluth. “It’s a new lens that I haven’t seen.”

Blesener was among dozens of volunteers — including a number of her fellow social work students — deployed across St. Louis County Wednesday night and Thursday to conduct an annual “Point-in-Time” survey of the number of people who spent the night in places that are considered uninhabitable.

“Most of them are unsheltered and said they stayed in their car last night,” Blesener reported of those she surveyed. “Actually, what stood out the most was someone who said they stayed in an abandoned building.”

The annual count, at a time chosen by the federal government, is crucial, county human services officials say. It not only provides an idea of the number of people who are most in need — it also determines how much support for housing the homeless the county will receive from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The results won't be known immediately. Last year, the count totaled 204 unsheltered individuals, compared with 148 in 2018.

This year, attempting to cast a wider net than ever, volunteers were strategically stationed across the county, from the Duluth Public Library, to the Government Service Centers in Ely, to two locations on the Bois Forte reservation.

Duluth’s two warming centers were opened Wednesday night, although the temperature was higher than the normally required level, so surveys could be done, said Will Wilson, the county’s Continuum of Care coordinator.

Stacy Radosevich, senior planner for St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, said she and her husband walked the skywalk Wednesday evening and in the area of the Duluth Transit Authority terminal, asking people if they had a place to stay the night. If they didn’t, she told them about the warming centers at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church and in the former Lincoln Park School.

But the hub of the effort Thursday was the Damiano Center, which combined the count with its twice-yearly Community Connect event.

Rosalyn Horn of Duluth is the director of residential services for the Salvation Army in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Rosalyn Horn of Duluth is the director of residential services for the Salvation Army in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Rosalyn Horn, a Salvation Army official who was serving as media coordinator for the day, described it as “a one-stop shop for individuals in the community who are either homeless or struggling with housing insecurity or even just need a hot lunch.”

A wide array of services were available, from hair trims to warrant resolutions to meeting with representatives of domestic violence shelters.

The thing that seemed to attract the most interest on a snowy, sloppy day was free boots. By noon, there were no boots left for adults, although a tub of children’s boots remained.

Horn also was the gatekeeper for people signing up for the county’s coordinated entry homeless housing priority list. Not everyone on this list meets the definition of unsheltered. They may be couch-surfing, or living in short-term housing.

The list consisted of 894 households Nov. 1, 2018, and 1,125 in September. By the end of the year, it was at 1,185, according to Kate Bradley, the list’s coordinator for the county and for the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Among them were 346 families with children.

With all of that going on, the Damiano Center was bustling, but in an atmosphere of calm and decorum.

Asked if anything surprised her, Blesener said: “Just how composed everyone is, talking about sensitive topics that can be really traumatic to them. … And just how open they are and how willing they are to tell stories.”

Sister Lois Eckes of St. Scholastica Monastery is no stranger to people served at the Damiano Center, as she is on its board. But as she also conducted surveys, Eckes was struck in much the same way.

The people she talked to Wednesday were gracious, kind, humble and grateful, Eckes said.

“I find there’s just a beauty in the people who come to receive the services that we offer,” she said.