Homeless advocates see vision take shape at O’Neil construction site

Jeff Corey stepped through the hallways of the Steve O'Neil Apartments, leaving footprints in the construction dust. "They're pretty close," said Corey, the executive director of One Roof Community Housing, the co-developer of the project. The St...

Jeff Corey
Jeff Corey, executive director of One Roof Community Housing, gestures Monday afternoon while talking about one of the units in the Steve O’Neil Apartments currently under construction in Duluth. The project will provide housing for 44 families and have six emergency units available for families. The building should be ready at the end of December. (Clint Austin /

Jeff Corey stepped through the hallways of the Steve O’Neil Apartments, leaving footprints in the construction dust.
“They’re pretty close,” said Corey, the executive director of One Roof Community Housing, the co-developer of the project.
The Steve O’Neil Apartments are at 101-109 W. Fourth St. A brief tour as crews were winding down Monday revealed a vast complex aimed at reshaping the homelessness problem in Duluth.
“I moved here 20 years ago,” Corey said, “and homelessness has only gotten worse. This has the potential to make a difference. This just might put a dent in it.”
Named in honor of the late St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O’Neil, who was an advocate for people in poverty, the apartments will offer permanent supportive housing for homeless families with children who have been caught in an endless cycle Corey described as shelter, street and shelter again.
On a city block once known for apartment buildings rife with sex trafficking, drugs and violence, Corey can now point out a window to where a playground will be.  
 “They’re making really great progress,” said Mary Schmitz, the development director for Churches United in Ministry, the people of faith agency that will be responsible for providing supportive programming to the apartment complex’s 44 permanent families. “We’re hoping to be able to have the first families move in in late December and into January and February.”
The pre-application process for tenant families has begun. In one of the building’s largest apartments, only the trim work, flooring and appliance installation remains to be done.
“This could be home to a family with four or five children,” Corey said from within the space. It won’t be long before children are rushing in the door and throwing off their coats in the foyers that are a feature of the units.    
There is no shortage of volunteer efforts as the project nears reality. There are groups of people using reclaimed lumber to make bed frames. The O’Neil family is outfitting each room with toasters in a nod to O’Neil’s daily toast-consuming habit.
On Saturday, Peace United Church of Christ was host to a full-day quilting workshop. Two dozen people helped make quilts for the future occupants.
“I just think people need to have something special, something beautiful and handmade,” said Jo Johnson, a Peace church member who initiated the effort in June to put a quilt into every apartment. “Quilts are something you give to family, someone you care about. I thought people should have something nice and other people thought that, too.”
Additionally, CHUM is sponsoring a housewarming campaign on its website, where people can pay for a range of interior necessities, from furnishing whole apartments to buying a collection of different-sized mixing spoons.
As move-in day for the first families approaches, CHUM is gearing up its programming. Schmitz described an effort that will offer cooking and parenting classes and host picnics and holiday gatherings to help build a sense of community within the apartments.
Save for six additional units designed as shelter housing for families in immediate need, the apartment complex’s first floor features several communal spaces. Corey showed off a spacious community room, a community kitchen, spaces for a nursery and child care, a conference room, and offices for on-site county and school district social workers.
Issue-targeted programming like alcohol and substance abuse meetings is also expected to be held in the apartment complex’s main floor.
The Steve O’Neil Apartments programming is designed using what Schmitz called a “housing-first model.”
“The idea is to get them housed and then deal with the issues,” Schmitz said.
Corey concurred. He grew up the oldest of seven children in a working-poor farm family. He said his parents were active on the school board and many other community institutions. Though cash poor, he recalled a vital childhood full of learning and growth, pride and happiness. He said the family owed its nonmaterial successes to the stability they found in their family farm home.
“You help people get stable with housing,” Corey said. “From that platform you can start working on everything else.”
Schmitz used the New San Marco Apartments on the 200 block of West Third Street as an example to explain the effectiveness of the housing-first approach.
“People who moved in there as chronic alcoholics years ago are now living on the nondrinking side,” Schmitz said. “They have several examples of people moving in the right direction.”
City Center Housing Corp. owns the San Marco, and will own the Steve O’Neil Apartments as well.
Like San Marco, the Steve O’Neil Apartments will be staffed around the clock at a main desk, with secure buzz-in entry required.
“A lot of the people we work with are fairly vulnerable,” Schmitz said.
It’s the hope of all involved that won’t be the case forever.
“That’s the dream,” said Corey.  

To help
To help furnish the Steve O’Neil Apartments, go to CHUM’s website at, and click on “Housewarming Campaign.”

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