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Duluth prepares to welcome seasonal outdoor housing for homeless people

A new permit could allow for sanctioned encampments.

051921.N.DNT.CountyHomelessPIC
One of several tents at a homeless encampment which was cleared out last fall by police near Point of Rocks in Duluth in autumn 2020.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Homeless people soon could have an outdoor living space to temporarily call home.

The Duluth City Council has unanimously voted to offer an interim-use permit authorizing local nonprofits to operate outdoor living areas, where displaced people can set up camp on a seasonal basis.

Joel Kilgour, an organizer for a local initiative to address homelessness, said the group hopes to establish up to four outdoor living areas, each housing no more than a dozen people, on private land and likely in partnership with Duluth faith congregations.

The effort to provide temporary relief to people experiencing homelessness has been dubbed “Stepping on Up,” and Kilgour said the outdoor living spaces are a recognition of unauthorized homeless encampments that already have sprung up across the city. Often, city officials are called in to break up these makeshift shelters and are saddled with the cost of cleaning up after them.

By creating alternative safer sites with amenities, such as restrooms, water, garbage disposal, sharps containers and access to support services, Chris Fleege, director of Duluth’s planning and economic development division, expects the city can reduce the amount it spends dealing with the fallout from unauthorized homeless encampments.

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“I don’t know that it will be a break-even deal. But it certainly will be more controlled,” he said.

The city is prepared to offer one-year permits to nonprofits willing to set up and supervise outdoor living spaces for homeless people.

For its part, the city has set aside $150,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to help provide needed infrastructure to support the outdoor living spaces.

So far, no entity has yet applied for a permit, and Fleege said, “I don’t think we’re going to see a run on these. I think the challenge is: Can we find a sponsor to try this almost as a pilot project?” He noted that staffing the outdoor living spaces could be difficult for local nonprofits that already feel stretched.

But Kilgour remains confident Duluth will rise to the challenge.

“This is the first phase of a five-year plan to try to get people off the street, out of chronic homelessness and into permanent housing,” he said.

“Obviously, we can’t build our way out of this immediately. So, this offers a temporary solution,” Kilgour said. He explained that the outdoor living spaces would likely operate for no more than three years, until such time as more adequate temporary indoor housing can be built and then ultimately replaced with more permanent private living quarters with shared communal spaces.

At least a month of lead time likely will be required to obtain an interim-use permit for an outdoor living space, according to Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth's planning and economic development division. And involved nonprofits have promised advance neighborhood outreach. So, the first trial of the concept may need to wait until next year.

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Kilgour freely acknowledged the city is headed into uncharted waters.

“This is experimental for all of us,” he said. “A lot of other communities have tried this out, and we’re learning the best we can from them.”

“I’m hopeful this will make a difference in individual live and certainly mitigate some of the problems, we’re seeing in neighborhoods and parks currently, with people who have no place to go,” Kilgour said.

While no one has an exact count of how many people are currently homeless in Duluth, Kilgour said that number is clearly “in the hundreds” and far exceeds the capacity of local shelters.

He said the outdoor living areas would close during winter months, when such shelter would be neither “adequate nor safe.”

Duluth will open an indoor overnight warming shelter for homeless people on Oct. 15.

At large Duluth City Councilor Terese Tomanek questioned Kilgour about how he would do to get neighbors on board and in support of the outdoor living areas.

“What if there is resistance?” she asked.

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“I think our plan is to win them over,” Kilgour responded.

Kilgour said Stepping on Up representatives plan to organize advance community meetings and to set up ongoing neighborhood committees to address any concerns about the outdoor living areas that should arise.

Given the current problems with unsanctioned encampments that continue to proliferate across town, Kilgour said he believes a strong case can be made for the supervised outdoor living areas Stepping on Up proposes to create.

Related Topics: DULUTHHOMELESSNESS
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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