Our View: Attitudes shifting on homelessness

Not that long ago, not even a decade ago, our societal sense of what was OK had police officers dealing with the homeless by moving them along, by giving them "move on" orders. There, problem solved -- although never really.

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Cameron Cardow/Cagle Cartoons

Not that long ago, not even a decade ago, our societal sense of what was OK had police officers dealing with the homeless by moving them along, by giving them "move on" orders. There, problem solved - although never really.

"And that wasn't something we did just here in Duluth; that was the practice of all law enforcement," Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said this week in an interview with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board. "But move-on orders aren't constitutional, and they don't happen anymore."

The approach now is more humane, more human, beginning with an acknowledgement that not having a home isn't a crime and an attitude that public spaces belong to everyone in the public. No, that doesn't mean aggressive panhandling should be tolerated, or illegal activity, or anything else that infringes on others' ability to be in those same public spaces. It does mean, however, that someone simply existing can be allowed to do so - have the right to do so.

The shift in attitude on homelessness prompted the Duluth Police Department, two years or so ago, to create a new policy: "Interactions with Persons Experiencing Homelessness." Tusken and others in the department found a nationally produced model and then tweaked it and rewrote it, making it uniquely Duluth's, after meeting with and talking with homeless advocates here and after listening to the stories of Duluthians who had experienced homelessness. Everyone in the department receives training on the policy now.

"Substantially, what has changed is our role now is to be a resource in the community," Tusken said. "We work very closely with Deb Holman, (Duluth's) homeless outreach worker. We now have two embedded (with police officers) social workers who help people get services they need. (Instead of, 'Move along'), we're saying, 'Here are all the resources available to you,' everything from where you can get meals, shelter, housing, and legal support to what to do if you're in a violent-partner relationship. ...


"Today, we look to give (those experiencing homelessness) referrals and help," the chief said, rather than the brush-offs and citations of yesterday.

The new approach is producing a more positive Duluth, the city's human rights officer, Carl Crawford, said.

"The biggest thing is that the police department and the city and our homeless coalition are talking to each other now. They're no longer talking at each other. And that's a big shift, too," Crawford said to editorial board members. "Homelessness is something that happens all over the country. It's different here because of the extreme temperatures. Here, you're talking life safety, what's happening in the extreme cold. Police underwent unbiased training, and I think that has really shed a different light on things. How do we see people with dignity? ... As a city we are definitely talking and listening and working on this together. We know there are insights from all sides of the table."

There's also evidence of changes for the better in addition to the shifts in attitude and approach. Heated public restrooms at Endion station in Canal Park and at Bayfront Festival Park are being opened by the city earlier in the mornings and left open longer into the evenings. Also, in December, the city added six portable toilets at strategic points at the center of the city.

At the same time, a grassroots coalition of homeless advocates, city leaders, and others has been working since the fall of 2013 to draft a Homeless Person's Bill of Rights, a guiding document to ensure safety and basic human rights for those out in the cold.

A number of its details still demand to be addressed, but with laws in place to handle most concerns, "Really, how hardhearted and truly cold would one have to be to stand opposed?" the News Tribune opined in March. "Supporting dignity for all doesn't mean giving up any expectation of personal responsibility by all. ... Ensuring human rights is a city responsibility. Specifically including those who don't have homes can be seen as a right thing to do. They're people who too often are overlooked, forgotten."

Although, increasingly, not so much, not with attitudes shifting and approaches to homelessness changing here in Duluth and across the nation.

Our focus, always, can be making sure there are safe places where people can go and adequate housing. But while we're working on that, there is nothing wrong with also doing what's possible to ensure everyone is treated humanely - and as humans.

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