Duluthians seek Bill of Rights for the homeless

Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
Homeless vigil
Pastor David Bard (left) leads the crowd in song during Tuesday’s vigil for the region’s homeless on the steps of Duluth City Hall. The signs held by vigil goers bear the names of 29 homeless people who died this year in the region. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Holding candles and placards that bore the names and ages of people who died in 2013 after living on the streets, community members gathered on the steps of Duluth City Hall at noon Tuesday to call for action in the form of a Homeless Bill of Rights.

In all, 29 homeless or recently homeless individuals died in Duluth during 2013, according to Deb Holman, CHUM’S street outreach worker. Participants in the annual Christmas Eve vigil also paid tribute to two local homeless advocates who passed away this past year.

Holman noted that many homeless people die premature deaths, often before reaching their mid-40s.

“Poverty is the main cause of death. People don’t have enough money for the basics, much less enough money to see a doctor,” she said.

Addiction also has become an increasingly common death factor. Holman said the state has seen a rise in the number of people dying on the streets from drug overdoses.

Joel Kilgour, a member of Loaves & Fishes, a local group advocating to end homelessness, said the number of people with no roof over their heads in Duluth has continued to grow. He estimates that about 200 people were living outside in Duluth before winter arrived, forcing people to seek shelter wherever they could find it.

Meanwhile, Kilgour said the number of people living on the economic edge continues to multiply. He said that about one-quarter of the local population now lives in poverty.

Against this backdrop, Kilgour said, homeless people and advocates have been meeting on a near-weekly basis to discuss what can be done. Together, they’ve drawn up a Homeless Bill of Rights that Kilgour said is designed to protect homeless people from harassment and to make it clear that being homeless is no crime.

Steve Gallagher, a 63-year-old Greysolon Plaza resident, who said he was homeless up until about a month ago, has participated in the effort to shape a more humane public policy. He described repeatedly being chased away from different places by authorities before finally finding help through Loaves & Fishes and the Dorothy Day Home.

In light of his personal experiences, Gallagher said he supports the passage of a Homeless Bill of Rights, but he finds it sad that such a document would even be needed.

“I don’t know why we have to do this. It should be a no-brainer that people should have the right to be homeless. We should be trying to help people who are homeless instead of hassling them. It’s just not right,” Gallagher said.

Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner announced she would bring forward a resolution in support of the Homeless Bill of Rights when the council next meets Jan. 13. The resolution calls for an ordinance that would result in the establishment of a city commission working to end hunger, homelessness and poverty.

“When you look at the ages of some of the people who are dying without homes, it’s heartbreaking. Any of these people could be our children. But I strongly believe homelessness is something we can prevent if we really pull together as a community,” Gardner said.

“If our country is not going to deal with this issue, we need to step up as a community, and the best way to start is to raise public awareness of the problem,” she said.

Holman takes encouragement from the recent groundbreaking for a $12.6 million Hillside apartment building designed to provide long-term housing and support services for families with children who have experienced chronic homelessness. The Steve O’Neil Apartments, named after the late St. Louis County commissioner, also will contain six emergency shelter units for homeless families.

Going forward, Holman said she hopes the community will provide more long-term options for homeless individuals, as well.

“Everyone deserves a place to call home,” Holman said.

Talk About It Talk about it