DULUTH -- As people stood in line for sack breakfasts Monday, July 13, in the Damiano Center parking lot in Duluth, Flora Woodfork didn’t need to be told homelessness was on the rise in the city of Duluth.
Woodfork, the kitchen manager at the center, sees it up close, every day.
“I’m seeing a lot of new people,” Woodfork said, “a lot of new homeless — both here and when I’m at the (Duluth Transportation Center) downtown.”
This month, St. Louis County reported the number of people who are homeless locally was on the rise, by as much as 18% in a year-over-year point-in-time survey.
The results of the count, issued July 1, showed 612 individuals experiencing homelessness compared to 519 during the same count last year. The 2020 count preceded the arrival of COVID-19, which is expected to worsen the situation.
With unemployment at nearly 11% in Duluth, the city that once vowed to wipe out homelessness and adopted the state’s first Homeless Bill of Rights figures to see further increases in its homeless population if or when Gov. Tim Walz or the state Legislature lifts a COVID-19-related peacetime emergency that currently prohibits evictions.
It’s a major concern for Mark Langenfeld, a Damiano Center volunteer and Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College professor of psychology and sociology. Langenfeld spent seven days in June at the Powderhorn Park homeless encampment in Minneapolis, where he counseled people for four hours a day from a lawn chair.
“I saw more suffering there in a week than I have in a year,” said Langenfeld, who worries that local populations of homeless people will continue to swell if economic conditions become more dire. “When the population of those who are homeless increases, it puts a strain on police departments, medical staffs, the mental health system of Duluth, and it puts a strain on the neighborhoods and the community. We’re already seeing it.”
In combing the city of Duluth for encampments, one can find multiple pockets where people who are homeless are camping. In wooded rocks that make up part of the Observation Hill neighborhood, there was a camp overlooking Lake Superior and a housing complex just below. The people living in the camp had just endured a major thunderstorm in lean-tos and soaked tents.
A man at the camp, fearing authorities had arrived, was quick to tell a news reporter he’d clean up the area. None of the people who are homeless at camps or in line for food would agree to give their names.
The local camps were nothing like what Langenfeld saw at Powderhorn Park, where the population doubled during the time he was there, splitting into two distinct camps.
In Duluth, “they’re scattered all over the city,” Woodfork said.
The city of Duluth issued a statement about its current situation.
“Camping in public parks is currently prohibited, and the city does not support encampments,” Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said. “When they occur, we work to connect those experiencing homelessness to our community partners ... so that they can access services as needed.”
Schuchman also said Duluth was in the process of working closely with cities across the state to secure funding for additional shelter space, “so that everyone can have a safe place to stay.”
In a separate response, the Duluth Police Department described large, illegal campsites as a health hazard that can come with crime and an inherent danger to those living there and in the surrounding neighborhoods.
"Primarily, we work to generate voluntary compliance through education and connecting people to resources," the police statement said. "However, if the encampment continues, we will enforce city and state rules, which are designed to ensure safe living conditions for all.”
For Langenfeld, the issue ought to become one of people helping people. He saw it at the Powderhorn Park encampment, where people shared cigarettes, phones and other supplies.
“I do feel that volunteering in any capacity is one of the many ways of showing compassion,” he said, encouraging people to, at the very least, write policymakers to ask them to do more.
Added Woodfork: “You just don’t know a person’s background. It’s not always drugs or mental illness. A person can just be down on their luck.”
After months of serving sandwiches and bag meals due to COVID-19 restrictions, Woodfork said the Damiano kitchen is preparing to serve hot meals again — still delivered in the parking lot for social distancing purposes, and thanks to a heated cabinet donated by the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
“They get tired of cold sandwiches, and I get tired of making them,” Woodfork said, mixing up cold cuts with chicken salad last week. A spaghetti meal is expected within the next several days, she said.
Duluth’s homeless population is disproportionately Black or Native American, St. Louis County said — almost 40% of people experiencing homelessness compared to those populations making up 4% of Duluth.
To that end, Woodfork condemned rent increases over time, saying even affordable housing can be made unaffordable for some of those who need it most. Some visitors to Damiano's food lines have homes, but can afford to pay for little else, she said.
"I want to encourage others to get involved in a positive way," Langenfeld said. "That’s why I’m spreading the message — volunteer time, donate household items, nonperishable food items, medical supplies or make a financial donation.”
When asked about his counseling sessions, Langenfeld described a lot of people with severe mental illnesses who were reluctant to or incapable of seeking out services.
“The most common thing they wanted was some kind of confirmation that their life made a difference,” he said, “or that they were important to somebody.”