Two Men Speak Out about Health, Safety Concerns at Northland Shelter

By KBJR News 1

August 31, 2013 Updated Aug 31, 2013 at 1:55 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - William Reeves and Mario Johnson are two men who say they're not looking for sympathy, or a handout; just fair treatment at Northland homeless shelters, like CHUM.

"Even doing this interview I'm running the risk of being put on the streets by CHUM," said Johnson, who is currently seeking a business degree at a Duluth university.

Reeves, a father of two currently in the Irving School Apartment Homes in West Duluth, says his experience with his kids at CHUM's main 2nd street shelter—particularly the fact that some daily meals were left exposed to flies—was belittling.

"What would be the smart thing to do is cover your food up before you put it out there. Don't just throw it out there like we're dogs, because that's how they treat us—like we're dogs," said Reeves.

Johnson, who currently lives with his wife and nine children at a CHUM–operated family shelter, says he became aware during his time at the emergency shelter that sex offenders came and went, and that he feared for his kids.

"It's not only putting my children in a [bad] position, but it's also putting the guys that are resident sex offenders in a position to re–offend," said Johnson.

"Some of that is probably true, and I am really sorry that we don't have a better situation," said Executive Director of CHUM Lee Stuart, in response to the statements from the two men. "I tell you, if I was homeless, I would be angry the entire time; I would be frightened, I would be angry, I would be protecting my children with every minute."

Stuart says a strict set of rules are in place to make safety a top priority in the main shelter.

"No smoking, no drinking in the building—you can smoke outside—you mustn't use drugs, you can't steal, you can't hurt people, you can't have predatory behavior," listed Stuart.

But she stresses that CHUM's main shelter was designed for individuals, not families, and in an imperfect system with a growing number of low and no–income families, Stuart says even their off–site family shelters are packed.

Stuart says Duluth suffers from a 4% housing vacancy rate.

"Shelter is not the answer here. The production of affordable housing is," said Stuart. adding which is why CHUM, One Roof Community and Center City Housing are in the midst of raising funds to develop the Steve O'Neil apartments on 4th Street.

"So those 44 units, plus 6 new units of new family emergency shelter for CHUM, will provide an enormous new housing resource for low–income families," said Stuart showing off the latest blueprints and visuals.

Stuart says CHUM is $60,000 shy of their goal.

"A year from now, when we're sitting here, and you're meeting 44 families who've been homeless but now have apartments of their own, you'll see what joy is like," said an enthusiastic Stuart.

But in the meantime, Johnson and Reeves say they're looking at vacant buildings in Duluth, and wondering why they aren't being utilized as a safe haven for those in need.

Both men say it's imperative that city leaders consider the immediacy of the situation, and weigh the options when it comes to renovating vacant buildings instead of building more, which both men say can take too much time.

Stuart says CHUM, and other development partners, are already looking into the construction of another low–income apartment after the Steve O'Neil apartments are finished.

- Posted to the web by Billy Wagness