Pandemic adds to homelessness crisis

It’s not always a highly visible issue, but the number of people experiencing homelessness in Duluth has been rising, and it’s likely about to get much higher.
“It’s hard to get an accurate count, but those of us who are on the ground know that numbers have been going up steadily,” said Joel Kilgour of Loaves and Fishes. He said a HUD-required count taken every January found that numbers had gone up almost 20 percent earlier this year.
And with federal pandemic-related benefits expiring August 1, some estimates find that about half of renters will be vulnerable to eviction, stressing an already overloaded support system.
Duluth simply needs more affordable housing, Kilgour said. “Duluth generally has lower wages than in the Twin Cities, but the comparable rents make it the least affordable housing market in the state,” he said. “There’s been quite a bit of movement in that upper income bracket of housing, but almost none to meet the need of low and middle income. We need a major investment in housing in our community.”
Because the Letter Carriers’ annual food drive wasn’t held in May, Katie Humphrey, then field director of the North East Area Labor Council, put together an online fundraiser to help local organizations during the pandemic. The fundraiser ended up netting $1,500 each for Loaves and Fishes, and CHUM.
As the pandemic and accompanying economic devastation continue through the fall, Kilgour said one of the most useful direct actions people can take to keep people in their homes is to know what resources are available before eviction is inevitable. “There are a lot of households that will be facing eviction very soon, and that can include union members,” he said. “People who have experienced generational poverty might already know about resources that are available. The emergency services we have out there are stretched to capacity.”
Several organizations, such as St. Louis County, can help with rental assistance, and the OneRoof runs a tenant-landlord connection that can provide mediation services between landlords and tenants.
“There are a lot of good programs in Duluth,” Kilgour said. “If you have a heart for a particular population of people, then CHUM, AICHO, LSS, and Life House always need cash donations and supplies. I will say, people have been incredibly generous through this pandemic.”
Kilgour said ensuring wages keep up with the actual cost of living is also key to preventing homelessness. “More than half of renters in Duluth are ‘cost-burden,’ meaning they are paying more than they can afford,” he said.

It’s important to remember that as an economic condition, homelessness affects everyone, Kilgour said. “People have an image of who is homeless — they may be dealing with mental illness, living with chemical addiction, or have low skills or educational background, but that’s not the whole picture,” he said. Something as simple as not having reliable transportation can make it easy for someone with a good-paying job at a big-name employer can make keeping that job, and a home, impossible.

As homelessness rises, Kilgour said one of the more alarming trends is a huge increase among older people experiencing homelessness. “At the beginning of the pandemic, eight of the 10 men here were over age 55, and one was 85,” Kilgour said. “He had been living in his car for about a year. We’re not taking care of our elders. Homelessness is wrong, it’s a stain on our country, and allowing elders to live in cars and tents is completely unconscionable.”

Kilgour said the work Loaves and Fishes does, rooted in the Catholic Worker tradition, shows what’s possible. Loaves and Fishes has no paid staff and is entirely community-supported. “Sometimes we get paralyzed by the needs and huge costs of addressing those needs. And we’re not the solutions, we’re just something regular people can do.”

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