More than two dozen residents made impassioned speeches both in support and in opposition to a proposal to launch a downtown outreach program during a Duluth City Council meeting Monday night.
Councilors voted 7-2 to approve $300,000 in funding for the Block by Block program, with councilors Terese Tomanek and Joel Sipress voting in the minority.
No one challenged the need for more resources to assist people struggling with homelessness, mental health, addiction and destitution in the community. But there were definite differences of opinion as to how the city should approach the problem.
In a letter to the council, Mayor Emily Larson wrote in support of a proposal to team up with the Greater Downtown Council to provide services and improve communication between people in need of help and other downtown workers, visitors and business owners, especially on the heels of the multiyear reconstruction of Superior Street, as well as the disruption caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"Downtown businesses support all of Duluth, and they've made clear they need our support. Outreach workers are the right answer, and I am grateful to the GDC and their partner — Block by Block — for offering this proposal," Larson wrote, noting that the same organization successfully provides similar support services in more than 20 other cities.
The proposal would provide $300,000 in funding to support the GDC's Block by Block initiative for the next three years. A number of speakers said federal funding made available to the city through the federal American Rescue Plan Act could be better directed to support other grassroots efforts to help people in need.
Classie Dudley, president of the Duluth Chapter of the NAACP, said: "If you don't support our grassroots efforts with these community groups, you no longer get to say you are an ally of the NAACP, past or present. You no longer get the endorsement of the people. And you can no longer say that you are about equity, and we will have you on record."
Daniel Morrison said funding the Block by Block program would be a disservice to all the community members who have dedicated hours of time to developing alternatives to a conventional police response to downtown conflicts or disturbances.
"If the council decides to allocate those $300,000 to the Greater Downtown Council, then the message they will be sending is that the folks who have shown up from the NAACP tonight and the concerned community members that have been working on community response in our community, you will be communicating to them that we don't care. We don't care what you say," Morrison said. "And we don't care about the time that you've put into this community. That's effectively what you will be saying."
But Tiffany Hughes, president of A&L Properties, spoke in support of the Block by Block initiative: "We believe this is one positive step to address several large concerns facing our downtown. Parts of downtown have been and continue to face increased quality of life issues from a breadth of panhandling, rampant drug use, feces on floors and worse. Our tenants are concerned about the safety of their staff and customers, especially those who are female.
"We are not insensitive to the challenges of those who are facing homelessness or substance abuse issues," Hughes said. "This outreach worker would serve as a resource to them and would be dedicated to the downtown. It could help us to work toward providing an environment in which everyone feels safe."
However, 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress, said: "I am absolutely convinced that we can develop and we could develop a better and a more successful program that better serves the needs of our downtown businesses and better serves the needs of our homeless and unsheltered population if we brought together our local stakeholders — the downtown businesses, the Duluth Police Department, the county, the service providers — and developed a locally based downtown street outreach program that met the goals that the Greater Downtown Council has laid out."
Yet, Councilor Roz Randorf, who represents Duluth's 3rd District, including the downtown, called on the council to support the Block by Block initiative: "Now, is it perfect? Probably not. Will there be a learning curve so Block by Block can understand how our current system works? Yes. Will it take our current service providers to work with Block by Block? Yes. But like I said before: Let's not make perfect the enemy of the good. This is something we can do and do it now. "