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Outreach worker hits Duluth streets to save homeless

Outreach worker Deb Holman (right) checks in with Kyle Itkonen (left), 22, who has been homeless in the past but now stays at the Seaway Hotel. At center is his friend Jason Ellerby. (Bob King/Duluth News Tribune)1 / 3
Deb Holman, a street outreach worker for CHUM and the Human Development Center, convinces Benny Taylor to spend a night at CHUM and then meet with the people at the San Marco building to help find him a room there. Holmen found Taylor on Thursday in the Skywalk system with nowhere to go. (Bob King/Duluth News Tribune)2 / 3
William Roberts, who was having dinner at the Union Gospel Mission last week, greets Deb Holman, who was there checking up people. Roberts said he has a place to stay. (Bob King/Duluth News Tribune)3 / 3

DULUTH -- Deb Holman typically starts out on the skywalk. Just her, sometimes a backpack and a list of names in her head.

She has been doing this for so long, she doesn't need a written list -- Holman, 49, knows every name and face by heart, walking the streets trying to find anywhere from 40 to 70 of Duluth's chronic homeless. They range in age from 20 to 60 and are predominantly male.

If she goes more than a week without checking off someone, she'll ask the police to help her search for a possible missing person.

That's her secondary concern. As the street outreach worker for Churches United in Ministry and the Human Development Center, Holman's primary job is to make sure none of them freeze to death.

"There was a time I didn't know this problem existed," she said. "But now I can't imagine going to another job. I don't think I'd be fulfilled."

When she finds a homeless person in the winter, she tries to make sure he or she has a place to sleep that night, whether it's a friend's house, a car, the shelter or the Duluth Detoxification Center (Detox). If they can't find a place to stay or refuse help, she offers hats and blankets.

"You can't force them to do anything," she said.

Earning trust

On a January night not even 50 feet into her shift, she spots Tim. He's heavy-set, dressed in a bulky overcoat, carrying an overstuffed backpack and looks­ like he hasn't shaved or slept in weeks. Holman says she has been trying to get him to talk to her for two years, but he's a tough case. Because so many homeless people carry years of abuse, mental illness and addiction with them, building trust is never easy.

"Some take years before they will accept help," she says.

Tim walks through skywalks nearly every night, Holman says, and this time he stops to talk with her. She goes through the questions:

Where do you plan on sleeping tonight?

"I've got a friend's house," he replies. "And I have a campsite out west."

She asks about the camp -- will it be warm enough tonight?

"I have a tarp set up," he says. "And at night I can build a fire."

And if he can't get out there tonight?

"I have sleeping bags stashed away in places so I can get to them."

Why not find a more permanent place?

"I don't want to get stuck in the government process."

It is about 25 degrees outside and will drop to 14 by early morning. The temperature doesn't seem to concern him; he refuses help and walks away.

"Can you believe that?" she remarks, smiling. "That's the most I've ever been able to get him to talk."

Barriers to finding housing

Ask the police, county social workers, or housing advocates whom they work with to get the homeless off the streets, and their first answer is Holman. She is soft-spoken, smiles often and is dedicated, working 60 to 70 hours a week. Her petite build, sandy hair and easygoing personality help her blend in with a crowd; she's not someone who would stand out at a party, and isn't out of place in a soup kitchen. The door to her office at CHUM opens to a parade of requests for help. An unspoken code among the destitute is to treat her with respect and kindness. In turn, she helps them find a place to live.

It is a thankless, at times impossible, chore.

Most of the homeless people she sees are on some form of government assistance, which ends up being about $200 a month. But the city has a shortage of low-cost housing. Bare-bones apartments like those at the Kozy or the Seaway start at $325 a month. Most require the first and last month's rent up-front. There is rental assistance available through the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, but the wait for apartments is more than a year long.

Holman used to have vouchers that would help get them into near immediate housing. "But we're out of those," she lamented.

Most government housing programs start at a six-month waiting list and require tenants to have a relatively clean criminal record; those who don't can wait up to a year or more.

"My crowd never gets into public housing," she said.

The shelter at the Dorothy Day House is always full, Holman said. There are boards and lodges -- basically low-rent hotels subsidized by the state -- but those take away a majority of a homeless person's income and can take a week to a month to get into. And many have curfews, don't allow visitors and don't allow residents to drink.

So when Holman meets someone on the street who needs a place to stay for the night, she has two choices to offer: a shelter or Detox. And sometimes neither is an option, and the homeless survive outside for a night.

Poverty and lack of resources

Walking through the skywalk, Holman spots someone who just got a place, another who's at the Seaway Hotel, another who's staying at CHUM for the next few weeks.

She seems to know all the cubbyholes and camps where people sleep. Once she found someone in a shack behind a cemetery in Hunters Park.

"I don't know how many sleep in cars," she says. "I know a few. But generally they keep walking around. Believe it or not, they do survive."

Many of the homeless she looks for already have a place to stay for the night, she says, sharing a Chalet Motel room on the city's east side after one of them gets money, gets a room, and invites others to stay.

"Now they're probably drinking," she says.

Holman grew up in Cloquet and has been working with homeless people in Duluth for the past five years. Before that, she did the same work in the Twin Cities for more than a decade. She understands life on the streets and doesn't sugar-coat it. She said she can get worn out from the alcohol she sees and the problems that come with it. But she doesn't blame homelessness on addiction.

"The underlying cause is poverty," she said.

Yet many homeless people have cell phones and enough money to buy alcohol. Think about it, she said: The $200 or so they get isn't nearly enough for a place to live, but it's enough for a cheap phone at $26 a month, and enough for liquor.

"But sometimes," she said, "I don't get it, either."

Years on the streets

On her way back to the Holiday Center, she runs into Kyle Itkonen, 22, who lives in the Seaway but used to live on the streets and dined out of Dumpsters. He says he doesn't drink and has never done drugs.

"I've been to the point where I can't feel my toes anymore," he says. "My lips peel apart and split open."

Later she finds a man who's drunk and gets him to go to Detox; another she encounters refuses to go. There's not much she can do for him as he stands in the Holiday Mall entrance.

"It's not illegal to be drunk," she says.

Many homeless people stay warm playing penny games at the Fond-du-Luth Casino. That's where Holman finds Shorty, a friendly man holding a drink at the bar. Shorty says he has been on the streets and living outside for years, but he won't talk about it.

Walking back from the Fitger's Brewery Complex, Holman is spotted by a man she knows as Willy. His breath smells of alcohol from 5 feet away -- but unlike the others, he's confrontational. He wants money. "Just five bucks," he says.

Holman will give her own money to some to pay for food, bus fare or even cell phone chargers, but not to someone like Willy. She can get him a ride to Detox, she tells him, but that's all.

That's not enough. He continues to badger her until she walks away. He turns around and walks away, too, yelling at her until she's out of earshot.

Her friends have told her she shouldn't do this alone, or at least she should carry a weapon. But she says she feels safe and rarely encounters someone like Willy.

"If we were with some of the other guys," she says sheepishly, "they would have kicked his ass for that."

A trip to Detox

Slumped at a bus stop in front of the Plaza Shopping Center in the East Hillside is Kevin. It is achingly cold, but he's not wearing a hat or gloves. Mucous drips from his nose.

He's too drunk to notice or care. Holman says he was drinking Listerine.

"I'm not having a good day," he mutters.

"It'll be all right," she tells him. She gives him a hat and gloves, but he won't put them on. And though he refuses to go to Detox, he won't say where he plans to sleep that night.

"I'll be OK," he repeats over and over. "I'll be OK."

She calls the police to take him to Detox but doesn't tell him for fear that he'll leave. About 45 minutes later, an officer picks him up, and Kevin doesn't fight being put in the squad car.

"I don't ever like calling the police," she says. "But I wanted him to be safe. He could have passed out at the bus stop and died."

How to help

If you see a homeless person on the street and worry it's too cold for that person to survive the night, police and homeless advocates urge you to call 911 or Churches United in Ministry street outreach coordinator Deb Holman at (218) 726-0153.