Down and Out in Duluth and Superior: Despite obtaining a Bill of Rights, it’s still borderline illegal to be homeless

February 24, 2015


Joel Kopcial
Zenith News

"I got ran out of houses [by the police] at least ten times that summer,” says Sam (not his real name), who was homeless in the summer of 2012. Not a fan of camping, he slept in abandoned houses. He would get kicked out, then move around for a week or two, before going back to a house he had been kicked out of previously.

Eventually, the police got tired of it, arrested Sam and charged him with second degree burglary, which was eventually lowered to third degree burglary.

But the way Sam sees it, he was just meeting his basic needs by the only means available to him. “You have to sleep. You have to stay out of the cold and you have to stay out of the rain.”

According to Third District City Councilor Sharla Gardner, 29 homeless people died in the Twin Ports last year. In 2013, it was 42. She was appalled to see the homeless treated more as an eyesore than as people. “I am not okay with someone being told to move along because they don’t smell the same as the nice person knitting...They just need to rest. Being told to have to move along is cruel and that’s not who we are as a community.”

On January 13, 2014, Gardner introduced a resolution for a “homeless bill of rights.” It passed the Council unanimously, intended to establish a Commission to End Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty to “secure the fundamental economic and social rights of all Duluthians.”

But now, more than a year later, not much has come of the original spirit of Gardner’s resolution. By April 2014, little enough had been accomplished that 286 people signed an open letter demanding action from the mayor and city council.

The letter was circulated by Loaves and Fishes at a concert in honor of the late St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O’Neil, who died in July 2013.

O’Neil was an ardent advocate for the homeless and, with his family, he founded the Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker Community in Duluth. [Author’s disclosure: I now work for Loaves and Fishes, though I was not yet working there at the time of this petition.]

The letter began:

At its first meeting of the year, the Duluth City Council, with the support of Mayor [Don] Ness, unanimously passed a resolution supporting a Homeless Bill of Rights and committing the City to take bold action to end homelessness.
Three months later, the city has not appointed a single person to the Human Rights Commission, the body tasked with implementing the resolution. In recent days, Mayor Ness has been quoted by the Duluth News Tribune calling housing projects for the chronically homeless a “distraction,” and urging Duluth “to stay focused on market-rate housing.”

Ness says those quotes were part of a conversation and “completely taken out of context...Unfortunately, some activists put a priority on getting their name in the paper and they seek to create conflict in order to achieve that.”

Before the resolution had even passed, a compromise was made: The Commission to End Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty—which was supposed to be comprised of at least 50 percent people who were actually experiencing poverty—was nixed and its responsibilities deferred to the Human Rights Commission—which does not seem to have been in any position to implement them.

The Human Rights Commission (HRC) was formed in 2001 to investigate complaints of discrimination on the basis of “race, color, creed, religion, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, status with respect to public assistance, disability and familial status.”

However, of the 15 volunteer commissioners, nine have resigned and five finished their terms. The membership roster includes people who no longer even live here.

“People come with expectations that aren’t fulfilled,” says City Human Rights Officer Bob Grytdahl. “It’s self-directed. People come with an expectation of power, but people have to generate their own power.”

One option for implementation would be adding the Bill of Rights language to Chapter 29C of the City Legislative Code—making homelessness a protected status before the Human Rights Commission.

“We need people to tell us specifically how things could change,” says Grytdahl “If this language was in the ordinance, how would things look differently?”

And there’s the rub. It’s difficult to be homeless without violating a host of public health and safety laws that those more fortunate never really think about.

For example, if you don’t have access to a toilet and must conduct your business outside, this would bring you into conflict with Section 34-25 of Duluth’s City Code:

No person shall urinate or defecate upon any street, alley, sidewalk, parking area, whether it be publicly or privately owned, playground, pier, beach, lakeshore, pathway, golf course or public park...nor shall any person urinate or defecate in any area open to the public view.

Superior’s version of this law (Section 86-14) is far more concerned with delineating all the various places you might want to spit, prohibiting public urination and defecation almost as an afterthought.

You could try copping a piss at a restaurant or a gas station, but businesses commonly have a policy of only allowing customers to use the facilities.

If you’re broke, you could ask people for money, but that would run you afoul of Duluth’s Section 34-31:

No person shall be in a public place, or a place of business, and while there solicit contributions of money, or goods, or services to be used for the pecuniary gain...of the solicitor or another.

Last October, Superior enacted a much more draconian anti-panhandling ordinance. It runs two pages long, prohibiting solicitation within 300 feet of any business, 50 feet of a driveway or parking lot, 300 feet of a government building, 50 feet of an intersection, or while holding “untruthful signage,” such as falsely claiming to be a veteran, to have children, or to be homeless.

Sleeping is another potentially criminal activity for anyone experiencing homelessness. If the shelters are full (or inaccessible or just unappealing), camping is an option, albeit not a legal one under Duluth’s Section 35-92.

No person shall park any vehicle, set up any tent or make use of any sleeping equipment for camping or sleeping purposes within any of the public parks of the city except within those areas designated for camping as provided in this Section, and then only after paying required camping fees and complying with the rules and regulations for use of such areas.

In this regard, Superior is more lax, prohibiting camping only on Barker’s Island and with no specific law against sleeping in your car. Two ordinances prohibit “loitering” in city parks after 10 p.m., with exceptions for the Nemadji Golf Course and Wisconsin Point.

Duluth has no law against loitering—at least not anymore. Having already removed most benches from downtown in the mid-’90s, as well as the benches and heating from city bus stops, the City Council passed an ordinance in 2002 allowing businesses to apply for “pedestrian zones.” For $50 upfront and $25 annual renewal, a business could prohibit people from lingering on the sidewalk in front of their store.

The ordinance would probably have been a civil liberties violation if it hadn’t turned out to be an utter failure. No businesses ever obtained a pedestrian zone and the City Council finally repealed the law in 2005.

While the Twin Ports hasn’t resorted to anti-homeless spikes or pay-per-minute benches, Duluth’s 2013 closure of Graffiti Graveyard—the well-known encampment under I-35 at Fifth Avenue West—was viewed by some homeless advocates as a mean-spirited move.

“They created a mini-community and they looked out for each other,” says Kelly Wallin of the Duluth Street Outreach Team. “Granted, some of them weren’t the church-going types, but in their own way, they cared for each other and made sure they were safe from outside influences. It can be rough looking over your shoulder...It was also better from a social service provider’s perspective, because all the people would be in one place.”

Sharla Gardner has set a goal for the Homeless Bill of Rights she introduced: “I would like the Christmas Eve commemoration to be a celebration of zero deaths [among the homeless].”

For her dream to become a reality, it would require the cooperation of government, the participation of citizens, and more than a small dose of compassion.

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