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Duluth nonprofits look to create sanctioned outdoor spaces for homeless people to live

Supervised camps could arrive in the city yet this summer.

Woman standing by her car.
Hannah Breuer on Thursday stands next to the car she lived in for two months after medical expenses forced her into homelessness.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — After living for two months out of her car and nearly a year in a homeless shelter, Hannah Breuer said she’s still getting used to having an apartment of her own, even though she moved into it a couple of months ago.

Breuer, a 25-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth student, explained that medical bills stemming from a host of health problems, including an infection, a non-malignant tumor and an autoimmune disorder, made her rent unaffordable. So, she left.

Tarp and other items in a car.
Window shades, a tarp, and blanket that Hannah Breuer used while living in her car still sit in the backseat.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

But Breuer, who was taking online courses at the time, said living out of her car was a frightening experience, with people frequently knocking on her windows.

“I never slept, which only worsened my health,” she said. “That was the biggest thing for me was not feeling safe, because I would move around to multiple locations to park multiple times a night, every single night. So, if I was sleeping, it would be at max like 30 to 60 minutes at a time.”

A new local initiative called Stepping On Up has recently created a safe space for people living out of their vehicles to spend the evening as one of the program’s first steps toward better meeting the needs of homeless people. Folks registering their vehicles at the Damiano Center now have access to a hygiene facility, trash receptacles and support services.

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Duluth's Damiano Center will install six portable lavatory units.

Breuer said she only wishes there had been such a place for her to go.

Local nonprofits have banded together with local government officials to get Stepping On Up off the ground, and its next order of business is to set up places where homeless people without vehicles also can find outdoor refuge.

Woman standing in her appartment.
Hannah Breuer talks to a visitor in her sparsely furnished apartment Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Organizers hope to see these temporary, sanctioned encampments set up yet this summer, said John Cole, executive director of CHUM, one of the primary advocates of the initiative.

“So, we’re aiming to establish up to four of these authorized outdoor living zones in our pilot phase for 10 to 15 persons at each site. So, what these will do in the first phase is address pressing public safety and sanitation concerns,” he said.

These proposed seasonal outdoor living areas will likely make use of tents, but Cole prefers not to refer to them as camps. He explained that partner organizations want residents to feel that they are part of a community. And he said that by bringing more stability to people’s living conditions, service providers should be able to more effectively address the needs of people experiencing homelessness.

John Cole.jpg
John Cole

“It allows us to establish relationships with those folks and begin case management. Our outreach workers won’t have to run all around the 26 miles of Duluth trying to find people,” he said.

Homeless people are already living in tents across Duluth, often camping illegally in difficult, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, noted 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf, who represents some of the city’s poorest central core neighborhoods.

Right now, the city cracks down on an encampment, and people pick up stakes and move to another location, Randorf said. “So, it ends up being this moving target.”

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The authorized outdoor living areas are considered a makeshift temporary solution with the aim of opening 100 units of transitional housing spread across four sites by 2023.

“The main purpose of this is to allow folks to address their disabilities, and so we’ll be focusing on trying to help them manage and control their disabilities, if there were to be substance abuse or mental illness or any other issue that presents itself,” Cole said.

“What that does is it will allow us to do away with this outdoor authorized living zone because people will be able to move from being outside straight into one of these units. It provides them with increased privacy and safety. It allows for more continued in-reach and services and it provides better protection for them from the heat and the cold. It really is a vastly improved model of existing shelters right now,” he said.

That second phase is expected to cost $8 million over the course of two years.

The third phase of Stepping On Up will involve building 200 units of permanent affordable supportive housing at a cost of about $25 million by 2025.

The proposed $33 million five-year plan provides a pathway forward, said Laura Birnbaum, housing and homeless programs supervisor for St. Louis County.

“It addresses a continuum. So, it’s how do we safely support people in the here and the now who are living outside, but then also how do we look at more dignified shelter options that provide housing in more of a transitional way? And then, it’s pretty clear across the county, and especially in Duluth, that we need more permanent supportive housing,” she said.
Birnbaum said federal aid could be brought to bear and noted that the cost of the status quo is likely to exceed the proposed investment of Stepping On Up.

She pointed to emergency medical care, social services, detox, law enforcement calls and penal expenses, as well as the cost of breaking up and cleaning up after illegal encampments.

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"Morally, it's the right thing to do. But I think we also would see the benefits from a financial perspective," Birnbaum said.

Cole said that, based on use of local warming centers, it appears that more than 500 people in Duluth remain without a proper home at a time when homeless shelters are overburdened and a last resort for many.

“The shelters are full. The unhoused folks have nowhere to go, and you have some of those persons who are unsheltered that aren’t ready to come inside,” he said.

The American Indian Community Housing Organization hopes to turn an office building into low-income apartments and “permanent supportive housing”

The authorized outdoor living spaces could help fill a void, according to Cole.

“There are various legitimate reasons why people avoid conventional shelters, based on their disability, their vulnerability and their history of previous abuse at the hands of people who may be living in the shelter. Persons who are unsheltered, they need safety right now, and so this would provide that. When you have people living in unsanctioned encampments, those become magnets for predatory behaviors,” he said.

While the need for assistance is great, Stepping On Up proposes to begin operating authorized outdoor living spaces at a modest scale for good reason, said Jennifer Davey, house manager for the American Indian Community Housing Organization.

“We don’t want to roll out something haphazardly. We want to set people up to be successful and have the whole program work," she said. "We want to do something that’s neighborhood-friendly, where we’re trying to involve all the people in the community, let them know what’s coming, allow them to help and be involved, so that they’re supportive of it, and also make sure that it’s trauma-informed so that’s it’s serving the people in the program in an appropriate way to help them succeed."

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Joel Kilgour has long been active with Loaves and Fishes in Duluth and is now coordinating the Stepping On Up initiative to reduce homelessness.
Clint Austin / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune

Joel Kilgour, an organizer for Stepping On Up, said member organizations are already maxed out dealing with demand for services by people experiencing homelessness, and will need more resources to manage the proposed authorized outdoor living spaces.

“We are in the process of hiring additional outreach staff to help support these sites. We don’t have the capacity right now to do it with our existing staff,” he said, stressing the need to provide sufficient support and oversight.

“We have a site selection committee that’s identified a number of potential locations. But there are many hoops to get through, including outreach to neighborhoods to make sure that people understand what’s happening and are prepared to welcome their new neighbors and not be afraid of what’s coming,” he said.

“We want to get it right,” Kilgour said.

Randorf said a number of things will need to happen to see the initiative forward.

Roz Randorf headshot
Roz Randorf

“We’re working to make sure we can prove this concept. So, we need to change some of the code; we need to choose the right spots; we need to notify the neighbors; we need to make a promise and follow through to make sure that it will be clean and safe and it won’t lower the value of the properties around them,” Randorf said.

Cole still hopes to see the outdoor living areas in operation this summer before the warming centers reopen in November.

“We are working feverishly to try to make this a reality,” he said.

But Randorf said laying the groundwork has been time-consuming, and the pilot project can ill afford missteps.

“It’s harder than we all thought. And if we don’t do it right, it will be a ‘done’ pilot, and it won’t be supported again. So, all eyes are on us. But the alternative is people taking their tents and going wherever they want,” Randorf said.

The first phase of Stepping On Up is expected to cost about $300,000 for necessary supplies, hygiene facilities, garbage disposal, management and support services.

The Duluth City Council already has agreed to provide half of that sum in hopes that St. Louis County will follow suit and fund the remainder.

However, Duluth has not offered up city land to be used for temporary outdoor housing, as Randorf noted that could open the door for financial liability risks.

Instead, organizers have been working with sympathetic private landowners and congregations.

Valerie Joeckel of the Salvation Army said she has been impressed by the building resolve to address the growing problem of homelessness.

ValerieJoeckel.jpg
Valerie Joeckel.
Clint Austin / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune

“The thing I think that’s really cool right now is there’s so much community support behind the need to address this issue that they can’t ignore it anymore,” she said.

Joeckel said it’s also important the issue be reframed.

“The shortage of housing and the cost is the problem. Not the people. But I think sometimes people view the people as the problem,” she said.

Editor's note: This is the first story in an ongoing series this year about opioid overdoses in the Northland. You can read an introduction to the series here.

Breuer described her own experience with homelessness as humbling but also eye-opening.

“To be honest, I think most people who are not homeless are probably just a paycheck away or one health crisis away from being homeless. And I think people need to remember that,” she said.

Joeckel experienced homelessness herself, too, while hooked on methamphetamine five years ago. “People are finally realizing that we need to meet the people on the street where they’re at,” she said.

Breuer credits the local organizers for their pragmatic approach.

Hannah Breuer.
Hannah Breuer.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“That’s what’s so cool about Stepping On Up, is having all these super-passionate community leaders organizing to not only figure out the longer-term solutions, but also figuring out concrete steps to take here and now to meet people’s needs, because that’s the first step," she said. "You can’t get to solving homelessness without being realistic about what people need, and that starts out with a safe place to sleep.

“When your basic needs aren’t met, and you’re stuck in survival mode, it’s hard to have the energy for anything else,” said Breuer, who expects to graduate from UMD with a degree in social work in May.

Organizations participating in Stepping On Up

  • American Indian Community Housing Organization
  • CHUM
  • Human Development Center
  • Life House Duluth
  • Loaves and Fishes of Duluth
  • Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota
  • Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center
  • The Salvation Army
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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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