THE ISSUES: What is the solution for Downtown Duluth & homelessness?


Viewers contact us on a weekly basis about homelessness around Duluth, from tents and encampments to needles and parking ramps and alleyways, Duluthians want it cleaned up. What is the root of the problem when it comes to our homeless population? What should be done to fix the problem?

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Emily Larson’s Response
“Well, it’s a really big problem, right, for everybody and it doesn’t feel good. So first, let’s just start with acknowledging that having people housed is better and safer for everybody in the whole community, than having people unhoused. And so, many people know that part of my previous work as a social worker with CHUM. And so, I think often kind of would assume that I have some leniency around how we would view this issue. And I really don’t. I have a very strong belief that getting people housed is the appropriate option. Encampments aren’t. And so, let’s talk a little bit about what we’re doing right now.

At the City of Duluth, I have 18 staff people who meet three times a week with the County, with the City, with the State to talk about where people are and how can we get people housed. Right? Because that’s the goal; to not just move the problem, but get people housed.

We’re investing $600,000 with thanks to the City Council in coordinated crisis response, so that when people make a 911 call, if it doesn’t involve police, we can send a nurse, we can send a social worker, we can send a mental health worker. We’ve invested $19 million in affordable housing units, expanded warming center hours, invested in the shelter, and provided money for people to store their items.

So all of that’s important. What we need to do is continue to push for housing. And this is why relationships that I have with the Governor, with Senators Klobuchar and Smith, are important because a lot of the money we need to help solve this problem comes from these other places.

I know that my opponent will likely speak about a regional mental health approach to how we work with people because we know that people have chemical and mental health issues and we want to support them in a holistic way. But going backwards in time to when we permanently institutionalized people for behaviors that we just didn’t like isn’t the solution. It’s not the solution. What is is investing in the San Marco and projects like that. I was a board member that put that concept together and got it funded and got it built. So we need to do two more of those, one for mental health, one for chemical health.

And then with regards to downtown, we keep doing what we’re up to. I convened a Mayor’s task force with 14 leaders from the downtown community. We have 24 of our 27 recommendations underway; including flipping office space into housing, including big investments and activation, and seeing a path forward that really revitalizes the whole downtown experience.”

Roger Reinert’s Response
“Yeah, I mean, and that is a really important question because it is something that you hear from one end of the community to the other.

It’s not just about a downtown issue. And really underlying that issue is an opioid and a fentanyl pandemic. And so we see here where we have both the benefit of being a regional center, but we also have the downside of being a regional center.

We are a community that is known as a place where people might be able to come and get support and get services. So within answering that question, we have to first acknowledge that living on the street or living in a tent is not a healthy thing for that individual, nor is it a healthy thing for our community. And the current solutions we have don’t work.

Jail cells and E.R. emergency beds are neither effective nor frankly, are they cost efficient. So really, two big strategies that we we can take as the next administration and the next Mayor. Number one, better connecting to the existing services that we have and that may actually mean engaging some partners that we’ve not engaged to this point. A great example is Teen Challenge. I had an opportunity to visit with them, tour their facility and talk about where they’re looking to grow their really proven model and they’re looking to move into this area. So I’m excited to have them have that happen and better connect to the things that we’re already doing.

But the second thing that we really need to focus on is something like the San Marco model. So, I was on city council when we adopted the San Marco. You may recall, super controversial, especially from our then Police Department. Well, they’re now the biggest advocates. Instead of this continuous cycle of people being on the street, being picked up, going through detox and starting all over again; you have a safe place, a clean place, a supportive place for people to be. Some of whom will stay the rest of their lives there because of losing the battle to their addiction. But others will be able to reach a hand out for help, and that is there as well.

So a model like that for our residents who are struggling with that opioid and fentanyl addiction crisis, I think is incredibly important. And then long term, the next mayor needs to be an advocate in St. Paul and with the state government to reestablish the regional treatment center. You know, back in the late 80’s-early 90’s, we took the regional treatment center away. What that means today is we don’t have long term care beds and that’s something we desperately need for folks to find recovery.”

Tuesday night on WDIO News at Six, we ask about the ongoing issues with Duluth’s roads. Each candidate details their solutions for streets.