Homeless Mother: ‘Filthy’ Conditions At Steve O’Neil Apartments; CHUM Takes Action

Steve O'Neil Apartments Have Been Open Since Dec. 2014

DULUTH, Minn. – As the coldest days of winter approach next week, the homeless population will be at the greatest need. FOX 21’s Dan Hanger introduces you to a family not living in the woods and not out of a job, but trying to survive. And through this process, the mother reveals a disturbing look at her emergency housing unit inside the Steve O’Neil Apartments in Duluth — a space that looks nothing like it was designed to be.

For 33-year-old Amanda Johnson, a single mother of three, life may look just like yours. But this family is actually homeless.

“There are so many people who are one paycheck away from where we are,” Johnson said.

Johnson works full time making $11.75 an hour at a fast-food restaurant.

“I’ve always been somebody who is going to work as much as I can because I have people I have to take care of,” Johnson said.

But she says rent prices in Duluth, especially with the deposit, are too high for her to afford right now, which is why her family has been living in this 1970s camper to save up.

At least that was the plan before, she says, child protective services forced her out because of heating concerns in the winter.

“I mean, that was our safe place. And we were comfortable and alone and happy and fine and we were dealing,” Johnson said.

Luckily, Johnson got connected with people at the CHUM drop-in shelter in Duluth, who helped move them into an emergency shelter unit at the Steve O’Neil Apartments on the 100 block of west Fourth Street.

GoFundMe Page for the Johnson family

“It’s a temporary thing and it’s not meant to be forever, but it’s meant to help you get to where you need to go,” Johnson said.

The $12.8 million apartment building was named after the late St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O’Neil who was a champion for the homeless.

The apartments –furnished with donations – opened three years ago with a focus of helping children and their families find safe shelter and overcome traumas associated with homelessness.

But Johnson provided pictures of her emergency family shelter unit that was far different than that original vision.

“It’s sticky, it’s gross. It smelled awful. It smelled like curdled dairy, like milk or something,” Johnson said.

The walls were spattered with a substance, a mattress had a white coating on it, the couch was soiled and the inside of the stove was coated in burnt food.

“Everything was filthy,” Johnson said.

There was even a shattered window.

“I feel more homeless in the shelter than I did in my camper. In my camper, everything was neat it, was in its place, it was clean, it was sanitary,” Johnson explained.

Johnson said she made building personnel aware of the room, but three weeks later, the window was still broken and whatever was cleaned, she says, was mostly done by her.

“I honestly was a little shocked,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, after posting on Facebook trying to find any type of permanent housing for the winter, Johnson was contacted by a random stranger, Mike Peterson of Wrenshall.

“When I seen that post, it just tore my heart strings and I said I have to do it. I’ve never done this before, but I have to do something,” Peterson said.

Peterson has adopted the family for the holiday season and says he’s doing everything he can right now to get a stable roof over this family’s head before Christmas — all while spreading the word and collecting donations for them.

“It’s been amazing and it’s my faith in humanity is went way up since this, way up,” Johnson said.

“He’s getting us beds. Just all of the household things we need taken care of, and it’s just … he’s a really good guy. So it’s been good,” Johnson said.

It’s one face of homelessness struggling with income and even finding long-term shelter.

But Johnson says she’s grateful and hopeful for a better life ahead.

“We’re coming from a place where we’ve been very stigmatized being homeless, and now so many people want to help us and that’s because of Mike,” Johnson said.

“What I have also found too is the people that have very little are the ones that give me the most. And that’s just amazing,” Peterson said.

Meanwhile, officials at the CHUM the drop-in shelter, who help manage the Steve O’Neil Apartments responded to this story after FOX 21 provided them photos from Johnson.

Executive Director Lee Stuart said there was clearly a procedural break-down by staff.

“My first reaction was thank you for sending them to me because I don’t want that kind of condition in CHUM shelter, and my next was to get my team on it right away,” Stuart said.

Stuart said she instructed her team to immediately remove the couch, fix the broken window and soon paint the unit, among other future fixes.

Stuart says the six emergency units are used in a pretty hard way, but that it is no excuse and a better check-list and maintenance plan are underway.

Lee Stuart, exec. director of CHUM

“What do you need to do to bring this unit back to the standard that we want it to be? And we would want that to be the same that we would want for ourselves,” Stuart explained.

“Overall we’ve done a really good job and sometimes we make a mistake. And when we do, we fix it,” Stuart said.

Before this story, CHUM has helped Johnson with gas money, getting one of their dogs neutered and even providing the first month’s rent and deposit when permanent housing is located.

Johnson stressed she is thankful for that support.

If you’d like to help Johnson and her kids with housing, supplies for a home and more, click here for the GoFundMe page.

You can also send a check to c/o Mike Peterson, P.O. BOX 15223, Duluth, MN  55815.

Peterson can be reached at 218-591-3458.

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