The sawdust has been flying at the MakerSpace workshop in Lincoln Park, as Kassie Helgerson and Mary Barney work to assemble the first of several yurts they hope will provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness this winter in Duluth.

Although Helgerson recently has been forced to quarantine following exposure to a friend infected by the COVID-19 virus, she said it’s exciting to see an initiative launched by the local chapter of the American Indian Movement finally moving forward.

AIM member and Duluth City Council President Renee Van Nett said supporters have donated more than $5,000 to the cause to date. She agreed to host a yurt in her own backyard to demonstrate how the wood and canvas structures could provide cozy shelter even in harsh winter conditions. Helgerson, who personally experienced homelessness, has been residing in that same yurt for months.

“I just continue to be shocked. I never expected people to support this so broadly,” Van Nett said.

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Then again, she said maybe it’s not so surprising.

“People want to do something about this issue. But they have no idea how,” said Van Nett, noting that the idea of actually beginning to address the stubborn problem of homelessness bit by bit, yurt by yurt, has definite appeal.

Van Nett remains convinced that taking action is the right thing to do, which is why she decided to host a yurt on her own property without asking for permission to do so.

“We told the city of Duluth, ‘We’re going to put a yurt up whether you like it or not. We’re going to save people’s lives. And if you’re going to try to stop us, well, that’s on you,’” she said.

But where to put up more yurts, at an estimated cost of about $500 each, remains a question.

Mary Barney ties a wood biscuit into place on the collapsable frame of a yurt Sunday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mary Barney ties a wood biscuit into place on the collapsable frame of a yurt Sunday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

In a letter to AIM members and the Duluth Indigenous Commission, Mayor Emily Larson said city administration would support the seasonal use of yurts for housing on private property but not public land, as long as measures are taken to ensure the safety of people around the wood stoves used to heat them.

“While we have deep concerns for the health and safety of occupants with the variables of fire, we think that there may be a way to make this work with our fire code and in alignment with the public safety values of keeping people alive and housed, which the city and AIM share,” Larson wrote.

As a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Van Nett said the idea of residing in a basic wood-heated yurt-like structure doesn’t really seem that daunting.

“Indigenous people have lived this way for all of our existence. We know how to make a community together and support each other already, from the bare basics. I’ve come from wood stoves. I’ve come from an outhouse life. When I was little, that’s how we lived. So, this isn’t anything different than that,” she said.

Larson wrote that she trusts members of Duluth’s Indigenous Commission would receive her limited support “with a sense of understanding.”

Mary Barney rips down a two-by-four into pieces a yurt’s frame. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mary Barney rips down a two-by-four into pieces a yurt’s frame. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

“There are many things still to be figured through in order for this to proceed and work well. I hope you will receive this letter with the spirit of good intent and open heart in which it has been written,” she said.

But a subsequent open letter sent to Larson and members of the City Council earlier this week asks for more. Signed by 117 local residents and organizations, the letter lays out a direct request: “1) space on public land near a bus line; 2) access to rubbish disposal and hygiene facilities; and 3) steps to make sure that the yurt village residents do not face harassment.”

Despite Larson’s message, Helgerson said: “We’re not giving up. Just because she said she supported this on private land doesn’t mean we’re done.”

“I think it’s really important not just for us to continue with this but for the city to step up and do something extra to help the homeless,” Helgerson said. “The low-income housing we have is not enough,”

Helgerson said she suspects the city’s position reflects its fear of being held legally liable if someone were injured or killed in a yurt. “But I also have to wonder: Is this just another way of trying to keep the homeless hidden? Because they don’t want them out front. No government wants the homeless out front. And they wonder why people feel invisible when they’re homeless?”

Mary Barney threads a piece of string through holes drilled through two pieces of framing for a yurt. Fastened with wood biscuits, the string will hold the framework together whether it is collapsed for storage or transportation or expanded when the yurt is erected.  (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Mary Barney threads a piece of string through holes drilled through two pieces of framing for a yurt. Fastened with wood biscuits, the string will hold the framework together whether it is collapsed for storage or transportation or expanded when the yurt is erected. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

In addition to providing the yurts, AIM will be expected to provide support services to their residents, including a steady supply of wood fuel.

The open letter calls the city to action, saying: “As a community, we must do all we can to make sure that our neighbors have access to safe, dignified housing, and at the very least that nobody suffers sickness and death due to inadequate shelter.”