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Summit tackles homelessness in St. Louis County

More than 170 people gathered at First United Methodist Church in Duluth Thursday to listen to people who have experienced homelessness and to discuss how best to address the problem throughout St. Louis County.

More than 170 people gathered at First United Methodist Church in Duluth Thursday to listen to people who have experienced homelessness and to discuss how best to address the problem throughout St. Louis County.

Jameson Danielson, 27, shared his story at the Housing For All Summit, saying: "My journey with homelessness began as a kid. My sister passed away 19 years ago, and my parents had an extremely difficult time continuing to function, and it was understandable to everyone, except the bank of course."

After losing their home, Danielson's six-member family stayed with friends for a while, occupied cheap pay-by-the-week hotels and spent summers living in campgrounds.

"I constantly felt anxiety, sadness and shame," he said.

Eventually, Danielson's family found stable housing, with help from the Salvation Army. But that stability was short-lived for Jameson.

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"I'm not going to go into details, but as a teenager, things between my parents and me were less than ideal. It's hard to be housed when you're a minor, when you can't sign a lease and you're also not welcome in your parents' home," he said.

Danielson said he will never forget one frigid night spent on the Lakewalk as a teenager.

"I slept in the Veterans' Memorial. It was cold, windy, raining. And I was so cold that I did not know if I would wake up," he said.

Danielson eventually found help through the Lutheran Social Services Renaissance program, which provides transitional housing for teens. Ever since then, he has never been without a home.

Today, Danielson works for the Rural AIDS Action Network. He has an apartment, as well as a dog he loves "more than anything."

"I had the courage to come out as trans(gender), and I started testosterone a year ago, and I'm active with our local trans community," he said.

For the most part, Danielson said his life now is good, but memories of homelessness still haunt him.

"One thing I'm left with, even after all the years that it's been since I have been homeless, is what I call housing anxiety," he said.

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Malita Spears, a Native American woman, also experienced homelessness at a tender age.

"The first time I remember being homeless was when I was 3 or 4 years old, and growing up with my mom that happened on and off. After age 4, I got lucky and I actually got to go live with my grandparents, who took really good care of me. And then when my mom was stable, we would go back to my mom, but she actually took really good care of me when I was with her. Just sometimes, I don't know what happened," Spears said.

She again experienced homelessness as a young single mother living in Virginia and dealing with mental health issues.

Fighting back tears as she recalled the experience, Spears said: "It has always been really important to me to take care of my children the best that I could, even though I wasn't the best. I did what I could. And honestly, that was really scary to go to a homeless shelter. It was scary to be there with men that I didn't know. But I got used to everybody."

But with help, Spears said she got her life back on track, earned a bachelor's degree and now independently supports her children. She serves as an advocate and president of the Rural American Indian Leadership Project.

Spears said the difficult times she has endured taught her lessons.

"These struggles that we go through just help us to connect with other people, because sometimes living in this world, it is a hard place, and people have addictions and they have mental health issues," she said.

Danielson stressed that no one should be left without housing options.

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"Housing for all means all: the addict, the felon, the person of color, the gay and lesbian, the trans people, all humans," he said.

More than 600 St. Louis County residents experienced homelessness in 2015, according to the Wilder Homeless Study. And Danielson said it's important homeless people have a voice in shaping solutions.

"Let's get the people who have lived this experience involved. Let's help each other help each other. I see that happening in Duluth, and I believe that one day we can solve this crisis and be able to say: We do have homes for all. I'm an example of how housing and feeling stable and happy can change someone's life completely. It's simple. When people feel like themselves and they know their basic needs will be met, they're able to live in a more authentic happy way."

The Rev. David Bard said Thursday's forum - the fourth of its kind in as many years - was an outgrowth of a 10-year plan to end homelessness in St. Louis County.

He said the campaign identified four goals:

• To prevent new occurrences of homelessness

• To shorten the length of homelessness and rapidly rehouse people experiencing homelessness in the most permanent arrangement possible

• To expand access points to housing and housing services

• To increase support needed to maintain housing

On Thursday, summit participants proposed numerous ideas for how to reduce homelessness and then voted to prioritize them. Their top four picks, in descending order, were:

• Hold local investors responsible when they invest in local market-rate properties to invest in affordable housing, as well.

• Partner tenants with employment service agencies.

• Incentivize community members to cooperatively invest in affordable housing units for people experiencing housing barriers.

• Change policies to develop a gradual exit process from public benefits to full employment that is individualized, flexible and is led by people of color.

Follow-up action meetings are scheduled from noon to 1:30 p.m. June 8 at One Roof Housing, 12 E. Fourth St. in Duluth; and from 1:30 to 3 p.m. June 9 at at the Virginia Youth Foyer, 301 12th St. S. in Virginia.

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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