Opening of New San Marco celebrated

As the 100 business professionals at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday afternoon talked about how much the New San Marco would change lives, Jeff Curtis slipped through the crowd and into his efficiency apartment in the building.

As the 100 business professionals at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday afternoon talked about how much the New San Marco would change lives, Jeff Curtis slipped through the crowd and into his efficiency apartment in the building.

He didn't need to hear speeches.

The building's already begun to help him turn his life around.

"This place here," Curtis said, "was a blessing to me."

For once, something he figured sounded too good to be true lived up to its billing -- a safe, nice place to live while he cobbled his life back together.


"I was actually sleeping on the street some nights," he said, before he heard about the New San Marco, which began taking in clients in late April.

"You have to learn how to be responsible again, and this is your steppingstone here. And they help you with all that," Curtis said.

And that's the idea, supporters said.

The $9.2 million supportive housing center -- the first of its kind in Duluth -- is a 70-unit, five-story, L-shaped building at 230 W. Third St. downtown. It provides homeless people and chronic alcoholics with a safe place to remain, whether they seek treatment or quit drinking. Most places only take alcoholics and the homeless if they agree to enter treatment programs.

The building is owned and run by the nonprofit Center City Housing Corp.

Getting everyone into treatment remains the goal for the case workers stationed in the building, which is divided into two independent wings.

One entrance is for those going into the 30 apartments for alcoholics and another is for the 40 efficiency apartments for the homeless or those at risk of ending up homeless, but not addicted to alcohol.

The latter is where Curtis figures he'll live for another year.


"You can get everything you need right here," he said. It's not just that he has a quiet, safe place to live, but the nurse and social workers are in the building, and a van can take him to the grocery store, he said.

There's also a guard station at the front occupied around the clock, and security cameras on every floor.

The wing for those addicted to alcohol includes a staff member available 24 hours a day, free linens and free laundry machines.

The efficiency apartments rent for $383 a month. The rooms for alcoholics will cost $1,148 a month, because it's more like a group home setting.

Tenants pay a portion of the tab for the apartments on a sliding scale based on income, with the state and federal governments picking up whatever a tenant can't.

Police say it's too early to decide whether this will help or hinder their efforts to keep crime down, but they like the anecdotal information they've seen.

"It hasn't eliminated problems, but with some people, we've seen a positive effect," said Sgt. Dan Boese. It's also nice for police to be able to return intoxicated residents back to their rooms at the New San Marco, instead of being forced to drop them off at a hospital or a detoxification center, Boese said.

Police are getting fewer calls about some people, now that they're staying in the building and aren't causing problems on the street, Boese said.


During May, police were called to the building eight times, Boese said. That includes everything from medical calls to police issues, he said.

Duluth Councilor Jim Stauber, who works in the emergency medical business, said he considers eight police calls in one month to be an excessive amount, considering that only 70 residents live in the building.

"It tells you that something isn't going as you would like it," he said.

But proponents of the building said they're convinced that, over time, having the building and its offerings in place will undoubtedly make the area safer, in addition to helping people who otherwise wouldn't recover.

"This is one of the best projects I've ever seen," said Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson, a longtime supporter of the building. "Sometimes people need to be treated with a little dignity and respect, and they'll make it."

For Gary Olson, executive director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, the event was the fulfillment of a dream that he said almost died for numerous reasons.

"I see the golden rule in action," Olson shouted to the enthusiastic crowd Monday.

It's also a chance to treat the chronic problem of alcoholism in a more substantive way, he said.


"It's about getting people to that first step," he said.

PATRICK GARMOE covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5229 or at .

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