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Duluth's 'Homeless Bill of Rights' might finally come to life

The Duluth City Council unanimously endorsed the creation of the Homeless Bill of Rights in 2014. But the initiative has been in hibernation mode ever since.

The Duluth City Council unanimously endorsed the creation of the Homeless Bill of Rights in 2014. But the initiative has been in hibernation mode ever since.

In 2014, the same year 29 homeless people perished on the North Shore, the Duluth City Council said enough. 

The city panel unanimously approved a bill calling for the creation of a Homeless Bill of Rights, seeking "the end of discrimination against the homeless, more affordable housing, and making it public policy that homelessness is not a crime."

The bill only stated these aspirations, without actually putting anything in place to make them reality, though homeless advocates up north said such initiatives had political support.

Former Duluth Mayor Don Ness left office in January, replaced by the city's first female chief political executive, Emily Larson. Now, there's movement afoot to bring Duluth's Homeless Bill of Rights, which would be the first in the state, to fruition.

A coalition of nonprofits, businesses, and church groups have drafted 11 tenets, which include explicitly legalizing the right "to rest in public spaces" and "to occupy a legally parked" car. 

Later today, the bill of rights' proponents will rally outside Duluth city hall. They'll then be given 45 minutes to make their case for the legislation before council members. 

"There isn't much unique about homelessness in Duluth," says Joel Kilgour of the shelter/commune Loaves and Fishes. "Here, like many other places, there's been a criminalization of homelessness, from [policing] feeding people in public to sleeping on park benches too long. What's different in Duluth is we've got an affordable housing crunch and extreme weather. We're asking the city to move this forward." 

It's estimated that Duluth's homeless population is around 1,000 people on any given night.  

Kilgour is quick to point out that the law would be a beginning, not an end in and of itself. There might be potential conflicts with say, allowing people to rest in public places and the city's "no camping" ordinance. He concedes there's plenty of details supporters, the city, and local police will have to hammer out before such legislation could become law. 

"Believe it or not, a major sticking point has been keeping our bathrooms open 24 hours," adds Kilgour. "Duluth, like a lot of other cities, doesn't have a lot of money and keeping bathrooms open longer costs money."