Duluth’s Street Outreach Worker Of Nearly 30 Years Talks Housing, Homeless Crisis

DULUTH, Minn. – Homeless advocates in Duluth say the struggle to get the homeless off the streets and into stable housing is at its worst. But at the same time, those advocates say the communication and weekly mission to tackle the problem is stronger than ever between advocates, the city, county, police, and the list goes on.

More than 600 individual people used Duluth’s Warming Center this past winter. And now with the center closed for the season, tents are popping up across the city.

Deb Holman, who has been Duluth’s boots-on-the-ground homeless outreach worker through CHUM and HDC for nearly 30 years, says the housing crisis is, in part, fueling the homeless crisis.

“There is a lot of pain, a lot of trauma. It’s hard … when people say, ‘Where can I go tonight?’ I have no answer,” Holman explained.

Duluth’s most recent and most visible homeless encampment grew early this spring along Railroad Street and across from Bayfront Park after the Warming Center in Lincoln Park closed for the season.

“As far as this summer, it’s going to be business as usual, which just means it’s going to be like any other summer I’ve done this work here – people are going to be camping all over our city,” Holman said.

The encampment along Railroad Street was deemed unsafe and unsanitary by MnDOT, which owns the land.  It was eventually cleaned up and the homeless moved on. But Holman says that doesn’t mean the problem goes away.

“You have the chronically addicted, you do have people who are working but they just can’t afford an apartment. All they can afford is to run their car to get back and forth from work. The rents are crazy, as we all know, and the vacancy wait is even worse,” Holman said.

But Holman says there’s hope through a newly launched organization called Stepping On Up, which involves multiple agencies within the city who are working on innovative ideas to help the homeless community live better lives.

Stepping On Up recently launched a Safe Bay, as they are calling it, in the parking lot of the Domiano Center. It’s a safe place to park overnight for people living out of their vehicles. Holman gave us an example of someone facing just that type of situation.

“Today I called a hotel in Superior [because] somebody wanted to rent a room — a working guy. $428 a week for a room,” Holman said with disbelief of the cost.

Meanwhile, Holman said people who are homeless are eventually getting housed, but she said the demand is too high for subsidized and Section 8 units available in the market, so advocates never feel like they’re making headway.

“A month ago, a month in a half ago, [HDC] housed 30 people, 17 people got housed from CHUM, so people are getting housed, but at the same time more people are becoming homeless. It’s almost like somebody loses their housing, somebody gets housed. So it never evens out,” Holman said.

Stepping On Up has also been approved by the city of Duluth to identify areas of land for temporary “outdoor villages” for people living outside. The city’s ordinance sets standards for hygiene and sanitation services and requires sites have staff support from homeless service agencies. Efforts to find the appropriate land has been difficult, according advocates.

Click here for more on Stepping On Up’s five-year homelessness plan and how you can help.

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