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Even without shelter, many homeless prefer to stay in Duluth

Lisa Runnquist, who was homeless in Duluth most of her life, now lives in the San Marco apartment complex. Behind her is a portrait of an American Indian warrior painted by her boyfriend. (Bob King/Duluth News Tribune)

DULUTH -- David Hopkins said he's been homeless in Gary, Ind., and is now homeless in Duluth. Despite receiving the same amount of government assistance in each city, he said he'd rather be homeless in Duluth -- even if it means having to survive outside.

"Where else would I go?" he said. "This is my home. Why can't I choose to be where I want to be?"

People with warm, dry houses might wonder why the chronically homeless don't move south or west as the temperature dips. And though some do, outreach experts say the majority stay.

Why? The answer varies.

When Deb Holman, the street outreach worker for Churches United in Ministry, asks homeless people why they stay in Duluth despite the freezing temperatures, she often gets a surprising answer.

"They think it's beautiful," she said. "They love the lake. So they'll fly a sign [panhandle] or do whatever to survive."

For others, being close to the city they know and their friends here is better than going to a city that's unfamiliar.

Those personal connections give hope that living on the street won't be forever.

"I wanted to live in Duluth," said Kyle Itkonen, 22, who was homeless from October 2008 to December 2009 and now lives in the Seaway Apartments. "I knew eventually I'd get off the streets; I just had to stick with what I was doing."

While working to get government help and looking for a job, Itkonen slept in public bathrooms and skywalks, but also in dumpsters, alleys and beneath overpasses, he said. He survived by wearing three to four pairs of jeans, layers of sweaters and jackets and hats and gloves.

"I've slept out nights in the blistering cold," he said.

Many chronic homeless stay because they're comfortable in their situations and have built a sense of community and trust with other homeless people, said Liz Kuoppala, executive director for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. "It's their support network," she said. "This is home to them."

Others, she said, are just trying to survive day to day and wouldn't be able to go anywhere else.

"So the idea that they'd save up to get a bus ticket to go somewhere seems out of reach," she said.

To others, being homeless in Duluth is safer than being homeless in other cities.

"We're not loaded with street gangs like they are down South," said Lisa Ronnquist, 54, who said she survived eight Duluth winters outside and was referring to her time being homeless in Minneapolis. "They like to beat on the homeless. It's vicious."

But living on Duluth's streets nearly killed her. She said she once passed out from drinking too much during the winter four years ago and was found frozen in the snow. She was later told that she wasn't breathing and her heart had stopped from hypothermia and alcohol poisoning. She awoke from a coma three days later. Three days after that, she was released from the hospital and went back to living on the streets.

There she found ways to survive and stay warm. She would build fires in wooded areas where the smoke wouldn't be seen, stay in camps and bury herself in clothes, blankets and sleeping bags. Other times she would do what many homeless do: walk and wander to stay warm while looking for a place to sleep. Once, she said, she took a garbage bag and slept under a picnic table down by the Lakewalk.

She said she might have frozen there had the police not been down there and seen the garbage bag move.

Ronnquist said she was homeless off and on from age 16 until she moved two years ago to the San Marco apartments, where she said she has been able to turn her life around.

Now she has no plans to leave the San Marco, where she says the staff treats her like family and she has been sober for so long that she has lost count of the months.

"I'm comfortable; this is my home," she said. "Staying here is a reminder to me that I'll never forget where I came from."