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Nonprofits, government, volunteers partner to seek accurate count of county’s homeless

It was so cold on Thursday there was concern some homeless people wouldn't show up to be counted. "Increase numbers or decrease numbers?" Stacy Radosevich wondered out loud. "It's pretty cold to walk up the hill to Damiano today. It's hard to say...

Liz Carlson (from left), Anna Sandberg, Sarah Belanger, and Donna Howard hand out free items to homeless people during Thursday’s event at the Damiano Center. The items included chemical hand warmers, food, bus passes, and personal hygiene items. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
Liz Carlson (from left), Anna Sandberg, Sarah Belanger, and Donna Howard hand out free items to homeless people during Thursday’s event at the Damiano Center. The items included chemical hand warmers, food, bus passes, and personal hygiene items. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
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It was so cold on Thursday there was concern some homeless people wouldn't show up to be counted.

"Increase numbers or decrease numbers?" Stacy Radosevich wondered out loud. "It's pretty cold to walk up the hill to Damiano today. It's hard to say. We just don't know."

Radosevich, homeless-program coordinator for St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services, was sitting in the lunchroom of the Damiano Center, the all-purpose social services provider at Fourth Street and Second Avenue West, helping to lead the annual survey of the homeless population.

The point-in-time survey, required by the federal government in an attempt to determine how many people were homeless on the night of Jan. 23-24, is conducted at several sites in the county, and by outreach workers. But the Damiano Center, which hosted one of its two Community Connect events of the year on Thursday, was the centerpiece.

Inside the former school building, volunteers and staff had assembled to provide a buffet of free services geared toward the homeless and those in need. Legal services were available to help with warrant resolutions, people could get birth certificates or IDs; hair trims and foot care were offered.

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"There are probably about 20 to 25 different providers here that are sharing information and resources," said Katherine Mueller, development director of the Damiano Center.

The Damiano Center offers 13 meals a week, available to all in need, but lunch on Thursday isn't normally one of those meals. On this Thursday, it was.

"And that's a big draw for people, too, is being able to come here and get a hot lunch," Mueller said. "You can see our cafeteria is comfortable and warm and people really enjoy coming down here for lunch."

Mueller said she thought those living outdoors would make it in to the Damiano regardless of the cold. But both she and Radosevich perceive a problem in the fact that the count is required at the coldest time of the year.

"For us in northern Minnesota we believe we can't get a really accurate number because people have called in favors with family members or friends where they will find a place when it's 20 below but not when it's 10 degrees (above)," Radosevich said.

As the Department of Housing and Urban Development defines it, only those who are "unsheltered homeless" - spending the night in a place that's not meant to accommodate sleeping people - are counted. It's an important number, Radosevich said, because it determines how much the county can get from HUD for programs helping the homeless.

Getting a count is even trickier on the Iron Range, she said.

"Literally on the Iron Range we have housing case managers that put on their boots and their coats and their snowshoes sometimes, and they go trekking through rural areas where people are known to camp or ice fishing houses that maybe people are using," Radosevich said.

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In Duluth, also, workers seek to contact homeless people where they live. Deb Holman, street outreach worker for CHUM, said she's noticing fewer people spending the winter in tents than she has in the past.

"We're seeing more people in cars, more people in doorways," she said. "A really hard group to reach is ... the drug user population. They could be anywhere."

The 2018 count for St. Louis County totaled 120 households, Radosevich said. This year's count won't be known immediately - it takes a while to tabulate and is due to HUD by Feb. 13.

Thursday was about trying to not miss people, and offering a helping hand to those being counted. As people arrived in the lunchroom, volunteer Donna Howard greeted them, and asked where they spent the night. If they were homeless, she asked if they were willing to take a 10-minute survey. Whether homeless or not, they received gift bags with hand warmers, snacks, deodorants, soap and bus tokens.

Cal and Amy Loken were sitting at a table covered with colorful mittens and knit hats, along with a sack filled with thermal socks.

They were representing Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, whose confirmation students had raised $500 to buy the socks, Amy Loken said. Other church members sought donations of anything made of wool, cut them up and transformed them into mittens. "It was kind of a whole church project," she said.

A man stopped at the table, asking if he could have a pair of socks.

"Go ahead," Amy Loken said. "Why don't you take two, if you need two."

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Earlier, another volunteer called to a man who was about to leave, "Excuse, me, sir, could you use a bus pass?"

"Thank you!" the man said enthusiastically.

Between 25 and 30 people volunteered for the event at the Damiano, Mueller said.

The number they help count will be too high no matter what it is, she said.

"These are real people, these are human beings, and they're living outside in this climate," Mueller said. "And whatever that number is, if it's higher than zero, it's too big."

 

Warming center update

Among places where people were counted as homeless on Wednesday night was the recently inaugurated City Center West Warming Center.

Of the 14 people taking advantage of the warm indoor space at 5830 Grand Ave., 10 were officially registered as homeless that night, according to St. Louis County's Stacy Radosevich, and it was expected the other four would be added on Thursday night.

The center, which was first opened on Jan. 17, is open from 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. on nights when temperatures are expected to fall below zero. It's operated cooperatively by the city, the county and CHUM, a faith-based ministry to the homeless.

The first night, five people made use of the center. The number has quickly grown, Radosevich said.

The city already has announced the warming center will be open again on Friday night, which will be its seventh night. It may be open many more nights - the National Weather Service isn't predicting an above-zero low temperature until Feb. 4.

Related Topics: WEST DULUTH
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