With an estimated 250 homeless people still roughing it in the Duluth elements, Joel Kilgour, an advocate for Loaves and Fishes for the past 25 years, reflected on the coming winter.

"I've never seen it this bad," he said.

Where Kilgour recalls once turning no one in need of a place to sleep away, he said it's no longer possible for Loaves and Fishes to accommodate everyone and noted that all other local homeless shelters also are filled to capacity.

The urgency of the situation is not lost on 4th District Duluth City Councilor Renee Van Nett, who recently agreed to have a small shelter called a yurt erected in her own backyard.

"I realize I'm putting myself on the line by doing something unconventional. I get it. But if we really want something to change, and we really want some action, at least for me, I have to put something out there and take the steps I need to take, even if it's risky, to work on something that's tangible for the community," she said, talking about the need for adequate shelter with winter approaching.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Duluth City Councilor Renee Van Nett listens during Minnesota DFL party caucuses in February at Lincoln Park Middle School. (2020 file / News Tribune)
Duluth City Councilor Renee Van Nett listens during Minnesota DFL party caucuses in February at Lincoln Park Middle School. (2020 file / News Tribune)

"I keep having this nightmare that we're going to pull away tents next spring, and bodies will be in those tents," Van Nett said.

Van Nett is proposing a relatively unorthodox yet cozy alternative: yurts. The portable canvas-covered structures draw on traditional Mongolian design.

Kassie Standingbear Helgerson, chairwoman of the Twin Ports chapter of the American Indian Movement, has taken up residence inside a demonstration yurt installed in the backyard of Van Nett's Duluth Heights home.

Helgerson can vouch for the yurt as a weather-worthy structure. She spent much of one winter as a pipeline protest participant at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, living in the same yurt now pitched in Van Nett's backyard. Tucked away in her wood stove-heated yurt, Helgerson said she comfortably rode out plenty of rough weather, including a storm that brought 40-below-zero temperatures and 70 mph wind gusts. She also weathered heavy snows, including one that nearly buried her yurt.

Kassie Standingbear Helgerson's 12-foot in diameter yurt is nestled in the backyard of Duluth City Councilor Renee Van Nett's Duluth Heights home. (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)
Kassie Standingbear Helgerson's 12-foot in diameter yurt is nestled in the backyard of Duluth City Councilor Renee Van Nett's Duluth Heights home. (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)

Helgerson now has family and friends in the Duluth area she could turn to for shelter, but she personally experienced homelessness for 10 years.

As she and other members of AIM sought solutions to help the growing number of homeless people in Duluth, the possibility of building yurts emerged as an option.

In turn, Van Nett, treasurer of the local AIM chapter and a friend of Helgerson, agreed to host a yurt on her property that could be used to demonstrate how the structures work and to generate support for the idea of clustered yurt communities.

Van Nett envisions groups of three to five yurts placed around town on private, church or city land, as well as scattered yurts hosted by individual homeowners, such as herself.

Noah Schuchman, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth, said the suggestion that the city should provide land for the development of yurts is still too new to judge, especially with few details yet in hand.

Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth's planning and economic development department, agreed, noting it was still unclear exactly if or how the city could accommodate the use of yurts as homes. But he said the city's comprehensive plan remains "open to a range of housing options" and was "not dogmatic" about the variety of structures that could be part of the mix.

Kassie Standingbear Helgerson cuts an onion for dinner Thursday evening in her yurt. (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)
Kassie Standingbear Helgerson cuts an onion for dinner Thursday evening in her yurt. (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)

"It's clear to me that we have an interest in creative proposals," said Fulton, likening a yurt to a cabin without plumbing.

Even so, Fulton acknowledged that his office had not yet taken a hard look to determine if the use of a yurt as a dwelling on Van Nett's property conformed with city code and whether any ordinance amendments may be required to bring more yurts into the community.

He did note that in 2019 the Duluth City Council approved a special-use permit for similar-style structures to be erected on Skyline Drive as part of a proposed unorthodox hotel development catering to outdoor enthusiasts.

Van Nett said she recently informed Mayor Emily Larson and members of her administration of her plans to host a yurt on her own property and to work with AIM to promote the construction of other similar structures throughout Duluth.

"We let her know that we would love her support, but we're not asking because homeless people are dying," said Van Nett, who explained the effort would go to support not just Indigenous people but anyone in need.

Her initiative drew praise from at-large councilor Derek Medved, who said he would not stand in the way of AIM's efforts to bring more yurts to Duluth to address homelessness.

Kassie Standingbear Helgerson mixes potatoes and onions in a cast iron pan on her wood stove Thursday evening. (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)
Kassie Standingbear Helgerson mixes potatoes and onions in a cast iron pan on her wood stove Thursday evening. (Samantha Erkkila/serkkila@duluthnews.com)

"Thank you for being dreamers and thinkers outside the box, because it's things like that, where you don't necessarily ask for permission, sometimes you ask for forgiveness later on down the road, but you take that vision and move forward with it," he said.

Medved asked if the city could consider designating a "safe haven" zone on public land where yurts could be erected with access to shared outhouse facilities and a dumpster.

Schuchman replied: "It may take some research and a better understanding of what you have in mind before we're able to answer that question."

The yurts being proposed would cost about $500 to construct and equip with a wood stove, Van Nett projects. Each could accommodate two to four people.

Van Nett said AIM has begun fundraising efforts for its initiative, and the idea has garnered a warm initial reception. A number of local organizations have offered support, and Van Nett said a group of six registered nurses and nurse practitioners have offered their services to assist residents if a yurt community indeed is constructed.

Helgerson suggested that coming up with resourceful solutions comes naturally to Indigenous people.

"If we just sat by and waited for people to feed and clothe us, our people would have died out long before anyone else got here," she said.

As for the idea of taking care of others, Helgerson said, "That is part of our blood memory."

"That is in our blood," she said. "We're fighters. When we get knocked down, we get back up. And if we see someone else get knocked down, we help them get back on their feet. We're survivors. That's who we are and who we'll always be."

The skylight, made out of plexiglass and recycled lumber, is Kassie Standingbear Helgerson's favorite part of her yurt. (Samantha Erkkila@duluthnews.com)
The skylight, made out of plexiglass and recycled lumber, is Kassie Standingbear Helgerson's favorite part of her yurt. (Samantha Erkkila@duluthnews.com)

Kilgour suggested the yurt initiative deserves support.

"I don't think AIM is asking to create something new," he said. "In fact, what they're trying to do is offer a safer alternative to the status quo, which is people just setting up tents wherever, without access to hygiene facilities, without garbage, without anybody looking out to make sure that they're safe. And AIM is interested in providing that, and it seems like it would be a mistake for the city to not to partner with them to help make a situation that is really unmanageable at this point a little more manageable and safer for people experiencing homelessness."

Duluth has turned to the state and federal government in the past in search of help addressing homelessness, but to little avail in recent years.

"I want to recognize that the city's in a tough spot. But still, leadership all the way down, has failed. And it has taken community-based groups like AIM — a lot of whose members have experienced homelessness and poverty themselves — to just do it, even if the laws aren't there to support it," Kilgour said.

"Unfortunately, that's just what we need to do sometimes to save lives," he said.