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Gonzalo Martinez (left) gestures while giving Michael Johnson a friendly razzing during dinner at the New San Marco Apartments on Thursday. Most experts credit a drop in the number of chronically homeless people in Duluth to construction of the $9.2 million residence. (Bob King/Duluth News Tribune)

Some in Duluth wonder if homelessness will ever end

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News Detroit Lakes,Minnesota 56501
Detroit Lakes Online
Some in Duluth wonder if homelessness will ever end
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

DULUTH -- For Kathy Jo Harr of Duluth, the choice between spending whatever money she made -- through general assistance, panhandling or donating plasma -- on alcohol or housing was an easy one.


"When you're a chemically dependent person, the disease comes first," said Harr, 43, who was homeless for about four years. "You only get a little bit of money at a time. It's not enough for a hotel room. You may as well use it to feel like you're safe. Part of drinking when you're out on the streets is that you feel invincible."

Harr's story of choosing alcohol over housing is an example of why it's so difficult to end homelessness. But county and state officials have spent millions over the past few years trying.

In 2007, prompted by state and national efforts, St. Louis County adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness through a multi-pronged strategy of preventing the condition, creating more affordable housing, and reducing the stay in transitional housing. In 2009, about $4 million was spent on those efforts in St. Louis County.

But three years into the plan, some data suggest that overall homelessness in the county has gone up.

Studies by the Wilder Foundation found 443 homeless people in the county in 2009 compared to 363 homeless in 2006, a 22 percent increase.

Data kept by Churches United in Ministry showed that 836 homeless people used its emergency shelter in 2009 compared to 764 in 2008 -- a 9 percent increase, mostly due to a rise in family use of the shelter.

Outreach workers and advocates blame the increase largely on short-term homelessness caused by the recession, which has led to job cuts, foreclosures and eviction.

"Unfortunately, people who get themselves in that situation go through a period of hopelessness," said St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O'Neil, who is part of the 10-year plan task force. "It can become futile."

"It is morally, ethically wrong that we in the wealthiest country in the world have people living outside and eating out of garbage cans," O'Neil said.

And, as O'Neil points out, homelessness isn't free. Taxpayers support the costs of jails, Detox, federal and state grants for temporary housing and shelters and the court system, while people with medical insurance support the cost of ambulance and emergency room care for the homeless.

"We know homeless in Duluth who it would be reasonable to think that taxpayers and the medical community are spending $30,000 to $50,000 a year on," O'Neil said.

Apparent drop in chronic homelessness

Other data show the number of chronic homeless -- those likely to try survive outside in the winter -- in the county has gone down in recent years.

The same CHUM data found the number of chronic homeless served at the shelter in 2009 dropped 9 percent, from 176 in 2008 to 160 in 2009.

The unsheltered homeless count done in 2009 showed the number of chronic homeless in the county -- those more than likely to try to survive outside during the winter -- dropped from 203 in 2005 to 148 in 2009 -- a decrease of 27 percent.

Most credit the opening in 2007 of the New San Marco Apartments, a project controversial because its $9.2 million cost was mostly funded through tax dollars and residents are allowed to drink. Most of the cost to run the facility is paid for by the state.

All 30 units on the facility's group residential side are made up of people who formerly were long-term homeless, said Lori Reilly, San Marco site director.

The facility has case workers to help residents develop short- and long-term goals, some as simple as maintaining housing. For many, Reilly said, if they weren't at the San Marco, they'd be back out on the streets.

"What makes it work is that whole community that's formed. It's their home," she said. "They want to be here."

Anecdotally, Reilly says, residents' involvement with police has been drastically reduced, while a study done by the University of Minnesota Duluth found that San Marco residents' use of the Duluth Detoxification Center dropped by 95 percent, said Gary Olson, chief executive officer at the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment.

Erik Hansen, a Duluth police officer who's worked downtown the past five years, also credits the San Marco for dropping chronic homelessness.

"You see less people in the skywalks, doorways, less people that have nowhere to stay," he said.

Still, even those charged with working to end homelessness said it's a goal that will never be fully accomplished. There's too much addiction and mental illness to overcome. And even if you find homes for the homeless, there will be always be more to take their place.

Of the 502 people the Human Development Center's Homeless Project serves, all have some sort of mental illness, said project supervisor Dan Peterson. The majority struggle with severe addiction, he said.

"Ending homelessness is a dream, because it's always going to happen," Peterson said. "I don't think it can be achieved, but I think we've taken a very good step in the right direction."

Turning her life around

Harr has been in and out of shelters, jails and Detox between living on the streets, where she said she mostly lived at the graffiti graveyard, an area beneath Interstate 35 at the western end of downtown, burning pallets from the nearby Depot to stay warm.

She'd sleep with other homeless people on cardboard in tents made out of plastic, using their body heat to keep warm.

"It's scary and it's cold," she said. "But you just do it. You do what you've got to do to be out there."

It was a life she couldn't have imagined 10 years ago, when she was a chemical dependency councilor, owning her own home with her husband, who owned a business.

"I had everything," she said.

Now she said she's decided to turn her life around for her family. She staying at an alcohol treatment clinic in Carlton, where she said she's trying to stay sober and housed.

"I have a granddaughter to live for," she said.

But homelessness has taken its toll.

A few days after her first interview with the News Tribune, Harr came down with severe pneumonia that put her in a coma for a week. She said she'll have to relearn to write and walk, and wonders if the years spent outside caused the illness.

"When I think about it, we were living out there when it would be 20, 30 below outside," she said.