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Homeless survey returns to St. Louis County this week

The county planner described Wednesday's count of people experiencing homelessness as "our biggest outreach we do every year.”

A makeshift tent in Duluth that sheltered a man in 2018
A makeshift tent built around a small tree appeared in 2018 between the ore docks and Wade Stadium in Duluth.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune
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After a one-year hiatus due to COVID-19, an annual survey of people experiencing homelessness returns Wednesday.

“We amazingly got an exemption because of COVID last year, and I wish we could have again, because COVID rates are much worse in our county this year,” said Courtney Cochran, senior planner with St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services.

Nine COVID-related deaths were recorded in the region Jan. 14-20.

Due to the omicron variant’s rapid spread through the community, Cochran described a scaled-back "Point-In-Time" count this week — one that will lean more heavily on workers already close to the housing situation and less on volunteers.

“In a normal year, we would have a massive volunteer presence,” Cochran said, explaining how organizers like herself plan to accurately pull off a scaled-back effort.

“We have amazing housing and homelessness providers in our county,” she added, “and they know the importance of this and they’re willing to put in the work.”

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The "Point-In-Time" count, a survey of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness, is a requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The count is conducted nationwide on the same day, which explains why it shows up on a frigid January day in Minnesota.

“It’s something that as a state and region we continue to push back on,” Cochran said of the unfortunate timing of the count.

In 2020, during the last "Point-In-Time" count, 445 people were identified in St. Louis County, including 155 in emergency shelters in Duluth and on the Iron Range, 67 in transitional housing facilities and 223 people who were unsheltered, either camping, sleeping in a vehicle, doubled up in homes, "couch-hopping," or in abandoned buildings.

The 2019 count was 519.

The data is used to assess community needs and gives agencies an idea of who’s out there, Cochran said. It influences federal funding, “and on a more personal level, it identifies people being lost,” she added. “It’s our biggest outreach we do every year.”

When people who may previously have been hidden in their plight are brought to light during the "Point-In-Time" count, they’re often referred to providers for better care and attention.

Cochran was careful to put the "Point-In-Time" count into perspective.

“It is a snapshot of data,” she said. “It isn’t all-encompassing, and there’s no feasible way in one night we can capture everyone.”

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The Northland has been experiencing a surge in homelessness across the past five years — a 25% increase over historic numbers.

St. Louis County will be collecting information to document where people spend Wednesday night. For citizens who have information about people who are experiencing homelessness and are willing to complete a brief survey, surveyors will be at the following locations on Thursday:

Duluth

  • Community Connect at Damiano Center, 206 W. Fourth St.
  • Duluth Public Library, 520 W. Superior St.
  • Union Gospel Mission, 219 E. First St.
  • Salvation Army, 215 S. 27th Ave. W.
  • MAC-V, 5209 Ramsey St.

Virginia

  • Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, 702 Third Ave. S.
  • Salvation Army, 507 S. 12th Ave. W.

People may also provide information by calling CHUM's street outreach at 218-461-8505.
Cochran also addressed some of the harsh realities associated with the "Point-In-Time" count.

“We know this event is important,” she said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t always lead to more funding or more support. The reality is we’re already accessing all funding we can at the federal level.”

MORE ABOUT HOMELESSNESS IN DULUTH
A permanent facility to shelter people during winter nights is scheduled to open in February.

Efforts to bring more federal dollars to the area have been unsuccessful for the past several years, she said.

One-time federal COVID-19 recovery funds, and increased funding from the state and local governments are being used to address further solutions locally, like the permanent warming center coming online soon in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Duluth, and the St. Francis Apartments — a downtown Duluth motel converted last year for seniors who were experiencing homelessness.

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“They are not in this process,” Cochran said of St. Francis residents, sounding like a win, “because they are in housing.”

This story was updated at 11:57 a.m. Jan. 25 to include county details on how community members can participate. It was originally posted at 11:37 a.m. Jan. 25.

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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