Counting Duluth's homeless an inexact process: Getting an answer

DULUTH -- On Thursday, when the temperature barely cleared 5 degrees above zero, a team of seven members from the Human Development Center worked from early morning to late night on a sort of citywide scavenger hunt. They went to places like bars...

Jeremy Baumgart of Duluth stands under the elevated portion of I-35 in the graffitti graveyard near the area where he often would sleep when he was homeless. Duluth News Tribune/Clint Austin

DULUTH -- On Thursday, when the temperature barely cleared 5 degrees above zero, a team of seven members from the Human Development Center worked from early morning to late night on a sort of citywide scavenger hunt. They went to places like bars, soup kitchens, parking garages, grocery stores and skywalks for the one day out of the year that the unsheltered homeless are counted.

With Thursday's frigid weather, finding the homeless was more difficult than usual.

"We know that when it gets that cold a lot of them double up," said Dan Peterson, director of the HDC Homeless Project who helped lead the count. "Others will go to the shelters."

Many homeless people simply don't want to be found, to try to keep their spots secret.

Steve Fullerton, for example, is willing now to rattle off the places he slept when he was out on the streets -- down by the Sheraton Hotel, another by the casino, a camp across from the M&H gas station on West Superior Street. But when he was homeless he always slept alone, and he never told anyone where.


"Once I had a camp site and my food, sleeping bag and all my clothes were stolen," said Fullerton, 43, who now lives at the New San Marco Apartments. "I nearly froze to death."

The count serves two purposes: to gauge the extent of the homeless problem in Duluth and in St. Louis County and, second, to receive federal money to combat homelessness from Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Though the county must do the count to receive the subsidy, the actual number of homeless people found doesn't affect the amount they get, said HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan. The formula instead is based on factors such as population and poverty. Last year the county received $2.2 million from HUD.

It's money depended on not just to serve people without shelter but to pay for homeless programs throughout the county, said Laura Derosier.

"It's for emergency shelters, transitional and permanent housing," she said.

Even when counters like Peterson find homeless people, it's sometimes difficult to get them to tell the truth.

About 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Peterson sat next to David Hopkins, who was eating at the Union Gospel Mission. Going through his survey, Hopkins answered "yes" to the question of whether he was homeless, but then said he slept the previous night at a shelter --- which would disqualify him from the count. Then, without prompting, he said he spent the night at the Duluth Detoxification Center -- and suddenly he qualified for the count.

He was homeless and unsheltered before he went into Detox, Peterson explained, and he'll be homeless when he gets out.


At the very least, Hopkins doesn't have permanent shelter. Asked where he said he planned to stay that night, Hopkins had a quick answer.

"I'm going to get drunk and go back to Detox," he said.

While Thursday's count numbers won't be available until next month, the official count for 2009 showed that of the 148 unsheltered homeless counted, 119 were found in the southern part of the county in Duluth and Hermantown areas, Derosier said, while the rest were counted north of Cotton and into the Iron Range.

Peterson said that number has remained about the same for the last several years, though both he and Derosier believe the number is probably higher.

"We don't know where everyone is," she said. "We know there are homeless in places like fish houses, in camps. It's a snapshot. It's not an active count."

Another snapshot is taken by the Wilder Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group for vulnerable children and adults, which does a homeless count in Duluth every three years and completed its most recent survey last October.

That survey gives a broader definition of homelessness and includes people who couch-surf. It found 359 people were homeless in the southern part of the county, while 74 said they were homeless in the northern part.

Though detailed results won't be released until next month, a similar Wilder survey conducted in October 2006 showed that a higher percentage of the county's homeless stay in emergency or battered women's shelters or in transitional housing.


Of the 361 homeless counted in St. Louis County, 70 -- or 19 percent -- said they slept outdoors, in an abandoned building or a car. Another 102 said they stayed in transitional housing, 99 said they stayed in emergency or battered women's shelters, and 80 said they slept in informal shelters -- meaning they probably couch-surfed with friends or family.

But for many homeless people who choose to couch-surf, even finding that shelter can be a constant struggle.

On an early Tuesday night last month when temperatures dipped into the teens, 46-year-old Samuel Dennison was walking downtown Duluth in a T-shirt and hooded jacket. He's homeless, he said, but he had no plans to sleep outside. He said he'd try to find a friend to stay with but that he had alternatives if that didn't pan out.

"If it means turning a trick, that's what I'll do," he said.

It's better, he said, than staying at a shelter or sleeping on the streets.

"The best thing to do is to hustle the streets and find a place to stay," he said. "I mean, you hustle. You've got to do what you've got to do."

Some combine couch-surfing with living on the streets.

"Wherever I wake up, that's where I wake up," said 26-year-old James Nelson, who grew up in Duluth and graduated from Denfeld High School.


Nelson said for the last three years he's had a group of three to four friends he's stayed with. When that's not an option and they close their doors, he said he hits the streets, sleeping in skywalks, stairways, bathrooms, even hiding in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center elevator.

He said he's looking for a job, but being homeless makes it difficult. Most employers require permanent addresses and they prefer that job candidates not show up looking as though they spent the night in a hallway, he said. He also has criminal convictions on his record ranging from theft to trespass.

Still, he said he'll keep trying to find work and a permanent place to live.

"But with the way the economy is right now," he said, "it seems like there are no jobs out there."

Brandon Stahl is a reporter at the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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