Un-Occupied: A Look at Homelessness in Duluth

Paul Whyte

The Occupy movement, which exploded to the forefront of public awareness from  humble roots as an Adbusters protest campaign (Adbusters is a Canadian alternative magazine) has gradually been loosing the momentem that it once carried. Last year, masses of people stood in protest across the world as a statement against social and economic inequality. Occupy movements sprang up organically in hundreds of cities.  

A year later, the small remaining group of Occupy Duluth found themselves once again being displaced.  After their removal from the City Plaza grounds last winter, the group began using the Paul Robeson Ballroom for their meetings and as a place to store tents and other supplies. When yet another fire occurred at the adjacent and previously fire damaged Kozy building the group began camping in the courtyard behind the building.  “After that incident, we found out that the building (Paul Robeson Ballroom) is in fact condemned‚ We had been led to believe that it was not part of the Kozy complex,” said Richard Harbaugh, a member of Occupy Duluth, about the situation at the Paul Robeson camp. Several tents, picnic tables and a portable event toilet provided the handful of people who lived there with a basic living area.   
Tensions began to rise between the group and Eric Ringsred (the property’s owner) in the camp’s final days. “We’ve been hanging on by our fingernails and were trying to reserve a space mainly for our equipment, but secondarily we discovered that there are a lot of people who have no where to go at night, they have no safe place to sleep,” said Harbaugh. When asked if he thought if the “1%” plays a role in homelessness, Harbaugh replied, “you’re asking about economic theory and stuff, but yeah. It’s pretty hard to argue that it isn’t the fault of major corporations who don’t pay any support for all the infrastructure and everything else that they get to use to build their wealth.”

Since the camp was shut down with the assistance of the Duluth Police Department a few weeks ago, it has left a few individuals without a place stay. “Those who have homes stay at home, and those who don’t are staying at CHUM or are couch surfing,” said Kathleen Spencer-Harbaugh of the displaced Occupy members.

Although the camp originally started for the purposes of protest, people who weren’t necessarily part of the Occupy movement started to spend nights at the camp and sometimes depended on it as a safe haven. “There’s full grown men who like to have a little drink every now and again who are sleeping in the bushes and that’s not so terrible. But we’re talking about a 27 year old pregnant woman who has no where to go and this town cannot provide a place for her and I had to watch her walk away from me into the darkness,” said Harbaugh.

The Reader had the chance to talk with a full grown man who likes to drink every now and again and often sleeps in the bushes. A man who identified himself as Eric. He is not a contributing member of the Occupy movement but has stayed at the camp.

Reader: You’re currently homeless, correct?

Eric: No, I live in Duluth, I don’t have a house though. There’s a difference between homelessness and houselessness.

Reader: Has the Occupy movement and what they’ve done with that camp ever helped you along the way?

Eric: They have some nice people there and it was nice to hang out with the crowd and all that stuff because no one likes to be alone. But hey, live. If you’re not living, you’re just staying.

Reader: How is having a home in Duluth without a house like in the winter?

Eric: You know, I can’t tell you about Duluth, but I can tell you about Embarrass, Minnesota. It got down to 65 below zero without a windchill one year, I’ve lived in it. Snowbanks are good.

Reader: Has anyone ever tried to throw you out of a place where you were trying to sleep?

Eric: No, but they’ve thrown me out of places where I’ve been sleeping. What are they going to say to you? You’re going to put me in jail? Well good, I’ve got a warm bed now.

Eric, now 42 years old, claimed that he had been homeless since he was 13. He said that he was institutionalized at the age of 8 and has been on disability since he was 10. “Do you want physical and mental disabilities as to why I’m out on the streets? No, I’m out on the streets because I can be,” said Eric. Eric stated that he’s on felony probation and that as long he stays out of trouble with the police he is free to drink or “smoke.” “What the hell is she (Eric’s P.O.) going to do to me? Throw me in jail? Please, house me,” added Eric.

The Reader went to the CHUM Center (located at 102 W. 2nd Street) in downtown Duluth and had a chance to speak with Kim Randolph.  Randolph has been working with the center for 23 years.  Randolph shared her views on homelessness and some of the operations of the CHUM center.

Reader: What does the CHUM Center do?

Randolph: We provide short term emergency shelter, we’re not long term housing. People have to sign an agreement that they are going to work on housing and that they are going to use their time and money for a place to live. More new people keep coming in so we expect the old people to move on. If people are working on housing or doing what they can, we can give them extensions. We’re trying to find where people can fit in. If they have an income, they’re required to save 85% of their money, we give it all back to them when they leave. We don’t want to be a free place to live where people can drink it, smoke it and gamble it, which is a big deal right now, there’s a lot of that. You can’t be violent or intoxicated, we house 60 people in here. If they are violent or using drugs or alcohol they get kicked out of here. If they didn’t save their money, they won’t be allowed to stay until the next month.

Reader: Do you view the smoking, drinking and gambling as a main cause of homelessness?

Randolph: I think it’s not a main cause. I think that poverty and mental illness are at the top there. And some people use drugs, alcohol, whatever as a way to cope with the mental illness, I think the mental illness came first, but we’re not geared to fix that.

Reader: So, you’re not a treatment facility. But in a way you’re making an ultimatum though, if they want this shelter.

Randolph: Well yeah, you’re going to have to be non-violent, you’re going to have to be sober. We learned that through hard knocks and I think Occupy learned that too. In the beginning I’d say “you can come in because it’s 20 below zero and sit right there.” Then sure enough someone who had ripped them off would walk through the door and I’d have a full fledged fight, it’s not safe.

Reader: Has homelessness increased in the last 5 years?

Randolph: Oh yeah, it has. Yes.

Reader: To your knowledge, about how many people...I’m sorry because there’s probably not a hard number...but how many people are homeless here?

Randolph: It is a hard number to pin down. Last year we provided shelter to almost a thousand people. (Randolph leaned over and picked up a stack of papers that were over an inch thick.) These are the intakes from last Saturday, stated Randolph.    

Reader: How do people make it out in the street in Duluth? It seems that there’s a lot less out there compared to maybe L.A. because of climate and of course population.

Randolph: Mostly it’s couch hopping, they find friends. It was real convenient when Occupy started. Occupy was made up of a lot of big hearted people that saw a need and tried to help fill it. I never went to the camp but I’ve heard stories; a lot of the people who ended up there were people who can’t stay here on a regular basis because of their drug or alcohol use or they didn’t spend their income towards housing.

Reader: What would there need to be in society to end or put a major dent into homelessness?

Randolph: Basically, we need a variety of kinds of housing. Right now we have private apartments which a lot of folks who stayed with Occupy can’t get in, or have been evicted from a million places. San Marco provides places for people who are chronically alcoholic, it’s a place for long term alcoholic people and they can drink in their apartments. It’s a safe and respectful place for them to live, they have access to healthcare, they have food since they can’t cook there, they could burn the place down. There’s 24 hour staff that gets them to their room when they’re passed out and the police can deliver them to their home instead of detox. Some people can’t stay at San Marco because when they drink they get really violent, but they still need housing. We can’t provide it, but they still need to be housed. I think we need a lot of different types of housing for different populations.

Reader: Do you think that to end homelessness that the government has to be involved?

Randolph: Unless there are a lot of really generous rich people. *laughs*

It’s hard to say about how the problem of homelessness should be tackled because there are many variables involved with the issue. Some people choose to be homeless and are content with living on the streets. Some people are violent, have substance abuse problems and cannot fit into a housing situation without assistance or supervision. Of course one out of every 100 adults receives assistance and supervision behind bars in America; a higher ratio than any other country.

According to Community Action Duluth in a 2009 survey conducted by American Community Survey, the poverty level was at 25.1% in 2009, up from 15.8% in 2006. The average poverty level in Minnesota is 11% according to the same poll. It’s all too easy for events to wipe out an individual or family living in, or on the edge of poverty. The interesting thing is that although banks have seized millions of homes over the last several years (2.9 million homes received foreclosure notices in 2010 according to websites such as bloomberg.com and realtytrac.com) two years earlier the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act spent $700 billion to stabilize the banks, which was paid for by tax payer money.

According to the AFL-CIO, the top “1%” is taking nearly the same percentage today as they did back in 1929 during the great depression. One is left to wonder why  politicians are thinking about cutting funding to PBS when there are a few people making such a disproportional amount compared to the rest of the population. When those at the top are in trouble, they ask the rest of the population to pay for the “1%” mistakes, and then they turn around and kick people out of their homes. Many of the people who have had their homes foreclosed on were good, hardworking individuals. American society supports and bails out the wealthy, when the very poor or homeless are left to fend for themselves.

When Occupy Duluth was first displaced from the City Plaza, Mayor Don Ness said something to the effect that the group needed to gain a focus. There was never any need for focus with the Occupy movement, other than to focus the world’s attention on the unjust disparity between major corporations endless wealth, the disappearing middle class, and those who are strung up upon the lower rungs of society.  Giving yourself a multi-million dollar bonus while families in America lose their homes and people go hungry is wrong. Luring kids into a war that is costing tax payers billions upon billions and letting them get injured on a battlefield in a questionably pointless war and return to live, unsupported and on the streets as disabled veterans is wrong. Perhaps we need to focus on the word “wrong” and how to do something about it. Until then, just accept the fact that the world we live in is being by, and for, the benefit of people who don’t have the “99%” interests in mind. While an Occupy member would probably give you the shirt off their back or a place to stay. Only if there was one.


Paul Whyte

A South Shore native and University of Wisconsin-Superior journalism graduate. Lifelong musician, and former open mic host. Passionate about the music scene and politics.

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