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Homeless seek warmth in hidden corners of Duluth

Jeremy Baumgart of Duluth stands under the elevated portion of I-35 in the graffitti graveyard near the area where he often would sleep when he was homeless. (Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune)1 / 2
Bob (last name not available) talks about the winter he lived in this semi-enclosed space near the Incline Station. The blanket and foam pad hanging over the pipe may indicate that the space is stilled used as a shelter. (Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune)2 / 2

DULUTH -- Jeremy Baumgart's tour begins downtown. Over by the Gateway Plaza sculpture that greets drivers as they get off Inter­state 35 is a wall and a row of pine trees providing cover from the snow and wind. There, he would lay down his sleeping bag.

Trees cover another spot across the street, just below the Depot parking lot. A vent there sometimes blows out warm air. Then there are the trains to hide under, or in, when they're left open. Walk across the tracks and beneath I-35 and you'll find the graffiti graveyard, walls spray-painted and hidden by the overpasses. It's an empty, desolate place now abandoned by the homeless. But at one point, Baumgart says, burning barrels and tents provided safety from the elements.

"I used to sleep right here," the 32-year-old says, pointing to a space in the dirt.

It got too well-known and too dangerous a place to stay. In 2003, two homeless people were murdered there, so he moved on to find shelter elsewhere.

Baumgart's story is in no way unique in Duluth -- advocates estimate that dozens of people might be outside on any given night, even in the winter. But it's a story little heard by the majority of people in mainstream society.

Baumgart now lives in the New San Marco Apart­ments, a supportive housing program that accepts people with chronic alcoholism.

After the slayings of Jeanie Marie Smith, 49, and her unrelated friend, Donald Erwin Smith, 48, a crime still unsolved, Baumgart's sleeping spots included a former camp out west by the New Page paper mill or out east in the woods near the Lester River. Sometimes there were abandoned buildings he could duck into. A heat vent outside of Pizza Luce provided warmth until it shut off at 2 a.m. From there he could go to a spot across the street from Fitger's Brewery Complex in a spot called "the pines" -- another wall and trees to protect from the wind and snow.

He would often hide in mummy bags -- heavy-duty sleeping bags that cover the head and use body heat and breath to stay warm -- and hope that he wouldn't be found. Even in Duluth, the streets aren't safe. During the four years he spent homeless was jumped numerous times; one attack, he says, cost him the vision in his right eye.

"You never really sleep," he says. "You don't want anyone to roll up on you. Normally you carry everything you own."

While some of the homeless leave the city as it gets colder, most stay and keep largely out of the public eye, finding refuge with friends when they can, or in shelters or boards and lodges. When there aren't housing options, they're forced to live on the streets. Other people, because of a combination of addiction and mental illness and, ironically, not wanting government help, choose the street.

"Everyone who wants to end homelessness has the basic assumption that they'll want what we have to offer, and it's not that simple," says Kim Randolph, the stabilization services director for Churches United in Ministry, which runs the only emergency homeless shelter in the city. "They want to have the right to decide what to do and when to do it."

For a homeless person who can't find a friend to stay with for the night, the CHUM shelter is open to anyone as long as that person isn't drunk -- or at least alcohol can't be smelled on their breath. But some choose to drink, hoping to get drunk enough to be admitted to the Duluth Detoxification Center, while others don't want to be in a shelter setting, which can be crowded, noisy and intimidating for someone who's mentally ill.

"A lot of them just can't be around other people," says Al Bergrem, director of the Union Gospel Mission, which opens for free breakfast every morning at 7:30, and where homeless people can often be found standing outside waiting to get in from the cold. Once inside, he's not always sure who the "campers" are, as he puts it, but he says he can usually tell the ones who slept outside the night before by their layers of clothes, their backpacks, or just the look in their eyes.

"Some just close their eyes from wandering all night," he says.

Bergrem estimates there are a half-dozen to a dozen homeless people who consistently sleep outside or in public areas such as skywalks or stairwells during the winter, but it's a number that varies depending on whom you ask. Deb Holman, a homeless outreach coordinator for CHUM, estimates the number at 50 to 70.

Baumgart says Holman's number is probably close.

"They're definitely out there," he says. "You just don't always see them."