Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith was in Duluth on Friday, wary of a deepening housing crisis and praising Duluth for solutions like its upcoming hotel conversion into 40 units of supportive housing.
"In the long term, we can only solve this by addressing the desperate need for a bigger supply of affordable housing, comfortable housing, good, accessible housing," Smith said outside the Downtown Duluth Inn on West Second Street.
The operator of the city's main homeless shelter, CHUM, closes on the sale of the Downtown Duluth Inn in May, and will convert the motel to full-time supportive housing.
Rooms at the Duluth Inn have been used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as a virus prevention shelter for people who are elderly, have underlying health conditions, or both.
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Mayor Emily Larson and several of the city's housing advocates appeared with Smith under cloudy skies. Larson said people experiencing housing insecurity within the city are "people we have known for decades."
"These are not new residents," Larson said. "These are people who have increased housing insecurity."
The city of Duluth is investing $500,000 in the motel conversion, along with $1 million from St. Louis County Housing and Redevelopment Authority. CHUM will staff the property, and, combined with a variety of funding sources, is purchasing the Duluth Inn for $2.65 million.
But the motel conversion alone won't solve the city's problems.
"The biggest challenge right now is we have been keeping people in their homes because of the moratoria on evictions and foreclosures," Smith said, referring to year-long pandemic measures statewide. "As that expires, I'm very concerned that is going to create a massive crisis. We have to focus on that."
Smith said there are millions of dollars "to help mitigate the challenge" in the forthcoming rollout of President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan coming to Duluth ($60 million) and St. Louis County ($54.3 million). City and county administrations are combing over the new legislation, while awaiting further federal guidance on how the money can, or can't, be spent.
The News Tribune asked Larson about the city's plans for homeless encampments this summer. Last fall, Duluth police dispersed an encampment which had flourished along the Point of Rocks section of downtown Duluth.
"We want people to get into shelters and transitional housing as fast as possible," Larson said. "I do feel strongly that it is incumbent on us as a city to ensure that people are safe, and that people who are vulnerable have roofs over their heads."
There are no easy solutions to encampments, she continued, saying the city is working closely with CHUM and its other partners, including Damiano Center, One Roof Community Housing, the hospitals, Life House and the county, to develop further shelters and solutions.
"We work really actively with all of our community groups to know where people are and how to reach them when we need to make sure that they're safe," she said, referencing on-the-street outreach efforts led by CHUM.
Smith said as a result of the pandemic, the housing crisis has never been more real than it is now.
"I start from the core value that if you do not have a safe place to live, then nothing else in your life works," she said. "Housing is health. If you don't have a safe place to live, you cannot be healthy."