The city of Duluth made headlines earlier this week for becoming the first city in Minnesota to approve a Homeless Bill of Rights.
But according to Mikkel Beckmen, director of the office to end homelessness for Hennepin County, Minneapolis has quietly made progress in recent years in reducing the number of people who have no choice but to live on the streets.
"In Minneapolis we've developed a really good partnership with the 1st Precinct and the broader police department where the St. Stephen's street outreach team gets dispatched as first responders instead of having law enforcement there," Beckmen said. "Before, 40 percent of 1st Precinct officers' time was spent dealing with the homeless and not crime. Any community member would agree that's a waste of resources. We want them fighting crime and keeping the community safe, but the community didn't really have any other tools for dealing with homelessness."
(The number for St. Stephen's first responders is 612-879-7624.)
"It's about not criminalizing the experience of being homeless, which often happens in other cities across the country," Mikkel continued. "Often the first response is to criminalize that reality."
The MPD's partnership with St. Stephen's grew out of Hennepin County's 10-year plan to end homelessness, which was enacted in 2006. Since 2007, street homelessness in Minneapolis has fallen by nearly 40 percent, or down to about 150 people living on the streets on a given night, Mikkel said.
"Things are going pretty well, but clearly we've got more work to do to become a community that has ended homelessness for all," Mikkel said.
The document unanimously approved by the Duluth City Council states that homelessness "within the City of Duluth is at an all-time high" and claims "lack of affordable, accessible and supportive housing is the primary cause... with forty-one percent of homeless adults on waiting lists for subsidized housing and an average wait time of one year."
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It goes on to say "current responses to homelessness have been inadequate" and points out, "[I]t is the public policy of the City of Duluth that it is not a crime to be homeless and that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself or herself and of his or her family, including food, clothing and housing."
"BE IT RESOLVED the City of Duluth establish by ordinance a Homeless Bill of Rights to secure for all persons freedom from discrimination in education, employment, public services, public accommodations, movement, worship, speech and participation in the democratic process regardless of housing status," the resolution concludes. "BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED the City of Duluth establish by ordinance a Commission to End Hunger, Homelessness and Poverty to secure the fundamental economic and social rights of all Duluthians."
Asked about Duluth's homeless bill of rights, Beckmen said he's friends with a veteran street outreach worker up there.
"They just felt like it was going to capture the community's attention and remind the community that you can't criminalize homelessness," Beckmen said. "Ultimately people need housing they can afford. Homelessness is more of a symptom."