Homeless 'family' living under freeway in Duluth want to stay put
DULUTH, Minn. - Members of an encampment of homeless people who have taken shelter in makeshift tents pitched under the freeway overpass in downtown Duluth organized an impromptu news conference Monday afternoon, calling on authorities to refrain from threatened plans to break up their settlement.
“We’re like family,” said Nate Briese, a 38-year-old man living in the colorfully painted gathering spot that locals call Graffiti Graveyard. “We all look out for each other.”
Samantha McKinney, 46, has been homeless since last January and found temporary shelter in the freeway encampment.
If homeless people living there are forced to scatter, McKinney said she will feel far less secure than she does today.
“It can be very dangerous to be out here on your own. When you’re alone, you’re much more vulnerable to attack. It can make you a target,” she said. “As part of this little community, we’re all much more safe.”
But camping under the freeway is not without its risks, as well. In 2003, police said then, two homeless people — Jeanie Marie Smith, 49, and Donald Erwin Smith, 48, an unrelated friend — were found beaten to death in the same area. Their murders remain unsolved.
Mitchell Hall has been homeless since June and says he took up residence under the freeway in July.
“This is my home and this is my family,” he said.
Hall said he used to be afraid of homeless people but his recent experiences have taught him that anyone can find themselves without shelter.
“I hope the city has second thoughts about kicking us out of here,” he said. “We’re all human beings, and we all deserve a place to lay down our heads.”
Duluth City Councilor Emily Larson said the issue of homelessness looms large in our community.
“A lot of people don’t realize how perilously close to homelessness many individuals are living,” she said.
Linda Krug, another Duluth city councilor who also attended the Graffiti Graveyard press conference, said: “It’s hard, because our market is so tight in terms of housing, and our climate isn’t exactly forgiving. We need to remember that people aren’t generally homeless by choice.”
Krug said she hopes the situation prompts a community-wide effort to address the problem of homelessness.
“I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I think there are things we can do as a community,” she said.
Isaac Broker, a 20-year-old Army veteran who says he returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan three months ago, said he couldn’t handle sleeping in the Duluth local homeless shelter operated by CHUM because of stress and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
But Broker said he has found comfort and companionship at Graffiti Graveyard.
“As soon as I came down here, they took me in,” he said. “They watch my back and I watch theirs.”
Broker said that on any given night, you’ll find 10 to 15 people taking shelter under the freeway.
Deb Holman, a street outreach worker for CHUM, said local police have worked well with the local homeless community, but she was recently advised of the city’s plans to clear out the Graffiti Graveyard encampment because of complaints.
While no hard-and-fast deadline has been set, according to Daniel Fanning, a communications officer for the city of Duluth, he said the camping must draw to an end.
“Because we’ve received an increasing number of police calls to the area, including a report of a violent fight this afternoon, we need to address this issue,” he said. “This is not a safe or legal place for people to be living.”
Fanning said the city will not resort to some sort of knee-jerk reaction but will work with other entities to find safe alternatives for people who have made the encampment their temporary home.
“Ideally, we don’t want anyone living on the street,” he said. “We’re going to do what we can to work with people and find them a safe place to live.”
Lee Stuart, CHUM’S executive director, said the local homeless shelter is a 46-bed facility but typically hosts 50 to 60 people per night, with overflow residents sleeping on the floor. She said CHUM has a policy of turning away only individuals who are intoxicated or who act out violently.
Homeless advocates estimate that about 200 people in Duluth are now living outside in improvised camps, according to Joel Kilgour, an outreach worker for Loaves & Fishes.
“It’s not luxurious by any means, but for a number of people, this is the best they can do,” Kilgour said of the Graffiti Graveyard encampment. He said a number of people residing there are on waiting lists for other housing, but he noted that qualifying for Section 8 housing routinely takes 18 months to two years these days.
Stuart said people living cooperatively in a group setting is preferable to having solo campers sprinkled throughout the community. She said there is at least some degree of improved safety in numbers, and outreach workers know where to target their efforts.
“I don’t think people living in tents is an ideal solution, but as long as they are, they need to be treated with dignity and respect,” she said. “These are members of our community. And my goal is for everyone in Duluth to have a safe place to sleep and call home.”
Peter Passi | Forum News Service