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DULUTH — Sanctioned, seasonal outdoor villages for the homeless are set to open in Duluth next spring, part of a five-year plan to address the city's growing number of unsheltered residents.

Duluth's City Council approved a change to city code earlier this week to allow outdoor living sites on private property, along with standards for use and one-year permits. It's also set aside $150,000 in pandemic relief money for the effort, which includes staffing for the city's winter warming centers. A coalition of nonprofits is expected to apply for permits for four sites to start.

It's "a watershed moment" for a plan that is ultimately expected to lead to more permanent housing, said Joel Kilgour of Loaves and Fishes, a Duluth shelter.

"There is no easy way out of this homeless crisis," he said. "It used to be the reason people lived outside was because existing shelters didn't feel safe or meet their needs. Today, there are literally not enough shelter beds."

More than 1,000 people sought emergency shelter in St. Louis County in 2021, most in Duluth. In the last five years, countywide homelessness has increased by 25%. The area's housing shortage, the pandemic, inflation, mental illness and addiction all play a part in the city's increasing homeless numbers.

Some families living on the edge of poverty have lost homes as a result of inflation, said John Cole, executive director of Churches United in Ministry, a longtime homeless organization in Duluth.

And complaints about unruly makeshift camps in neighborhoods, like the one near the scenic Point of Rocks west of downtown Duluth, continue to flow in to city officials.

The city's stance on illegal camps has been to "turn a blind eye" until problems become too big and dispersal is necessary, said City Council Member Roz Randorf, who has worked on the issue.

This is an attempt to prevent those, she said, offering a safe, clean place to stay until permanent housing is available.

"We are all watching this and making sure we are doing this right," Randorf said, "in a way that gives these folks a little more dignity."

The public can voice concerns to the planning commission, which will approve permits, said Adam Fulton, deputy director of planning and economic development for the city.

But Stepping On Up, the coalition of nine community organizations that work with the homeless population, plans to both notify and meet with neighbors before a site opens, add a hotline neighbors can call with issues and build "good neighbor" groups to respond to problems. The sites will be staffed with outreach workers daily, offering a harm reduction model with connections to resources for help with mental health, medical care and substance abuse.

The coalition points to Eugene, Ore., as an example of a successful model. In Duluth, about a dozen people will live at each site, and portable bathrooms, potable water, needle containers and garbage service will be provided. Sites, which may include church property, are expected to be flat, accessible and large enough to hold several provided tents or huts. One will be for people living in vehicles.

A resident leader will be designated for things like tending fires and ensuring order, and be paid for it, Cole said, and Stepping On Up will assume responsibility for the villages.

Focus groups that totaled nearly 100 people experiencing homelessness showed "universal" support for legal encampments, as many forced to live outside seek a more stable, safer way to do it, Kilgour said.

Often victims of violent crime, "they are tired of it — strangers showing up and slashing tents, abusers and dealers showing up," he said.

The second phase of the $33 million five-year plan for supportive housing includes 100 units of quick-build indoor "step-up" housing, much like Avivo Village in Minneapolis. By the end, it's hoped 200 permanent "tiny" homes or apartments will be built, some already in progress. The goal is to equip residents with the skills to manage their own spaces and contribute to the community, Cole said.

The outdoor villages would be temporary — closing once the indoor step-up housing is ready.

The goal is to relieve "the bottleneck," Kilgour said.

"We opened the warming center four years ago to prevent people from dying in the winter," he said. "This is not a solution, it's an emergency response."