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Our View: Duluth needs to do more to secure skywalks, help those unhoused

From the editorial: "Encouragingly, with downtown offices reopening and with tourism season rapidly approaching, it’s work already begun."

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Milt Priggee / Cagle Cartoons
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Attending a classic movie night at the NorShor Theater last month, a group parked in the nearby ramp and took the skywalk over Third Avenue East. Immediately, they encountered “several people laying and sitting on the floor.” Also in the skywalk they saw a wheelchair tipped on its side and abandoned. On the way home, they used the parking ramp’s elevator, “and the stench of human waste (in it) … was overwhelming,” one member of the group reported in an email to the Duluth City Council — “to make sure you are aware.”

“I would hate to think this might be what visitors to our city could experience,” the email concluded. Shortly after its receipt, the city closed the section of skywalk.

During two years of life-altering sickness and shutdowns, workers left their downtown offices to work from home; and shops, bars, restaurants, and theaters shut down, keeping others away from Duluth’s core.

At the same time, unhoused Duluthians and those suffering mental health woes struggled to access services, find open hygiene facilities, and more. Instead, they found warmth inside skywalks where suddenly there were few others to hassle them.

With the pandemic now easing and with workers, shoppers, theatergoers, and others returning downtown, uncomfortable-for-everyone encounters like the one on classic movie night last month are increasingly likely. And it’s clear the city needs to do far more to help ease the transition — more for both those who are unhoused or suffering mental health challenges and for those returning downtown who only want to feel safe and deserve to be safe.

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“(There are) numerous challenges,” City Council President Arik Forsman and City Councilor Roz Randorf, whose district includes downtown, acknowledged in a commentary last week in the News Tribune. “Residents are fed up, and business owners are left with a feeling that solutions can’t come soon enough. A fix to this complex issue won’t be easy. … It will take hard work, thoughtful planning, political will, and money to find short-term and long-term solutions. It’s work worth doing.”

Encouragingly, with downtown offices reopening and with tourism season rapidly approaching, it’s work already begun.

The city and Greater Downtown Council recently expanded a social-worker program downtown that “is seeing tangible results,” Mayor Emily Larson reported in a social-media post last week. The program is connecting those who need it with services and safe and stable housing.

The downtown council also said its Clean and Safe Team has added more hours of patrols to clean up litter, escort people, offer directions, and serve as a visual presence to deter wrongdoing.

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said at a press conference — also last week and at which the city announced the skywalk’s reopening — that foot patrols of police officers and embedded social workers have doubled and even tripled in the skywalk system, even when it has meant paying overtime.

And in their commentary, Councilors Forsman and Randorf laid out several strategies, including opening more warming centers and other places where those who are unsheltered can go to safely get out of the elements, using federal tax credits through the Revitalizing Downtowns Act to convert empty offices into housing and other new uses, and getting more people back into the skywalks.

“While perception of safety downtown has been challenged, Duluth Police statistics show it is still a safe place to be,” Forsman and Randorf claimed. “We expect a very busy tourist season to begin soon and look forward to the energy and sense of joy picking up in the downtown over the coming months.”

Not everyone attending classic movie night at the NorShor in February left with a sense of joy. While increasing numbers of Duluthians and visitors returning downtown “feels great” and “like normal,” as the mayor posted, real action also is needed, and urgently so, to crack down on wrongdoing, to ensure safety, and to help out those who see few alternatives to panhandling and worse while warming up.

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