Concerns raised about downtown homeless encampment

A quaint downtown park owned by MNDOT has become occupied by homeless persons. Officials hope to find a way to help the occupants at another site.

A homeless encampment in the Downtown Duluth business district has raised concern among nearby companies.

Located at Fourth Avenue East and Superior Street, the camp is alongside a popular stretch of sidewalk on which guests at the Fitger’s Inn walk or bike between the retail center and its parking lot to retailers to the west such as Duluth Trading Co. It’s also directly in front of the new Essentia building under construction just across Superior Street.

The slim block-long park has become littered with tents, tarps, refuse and other signs of human occupancy. In years past, a bench in the park has been a popular area for homeless people to sleep.

“We have received a few complaints about this and have voiced concerns regarding the garbage that is accumulating due to the encampment,” Greater Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes said in an email. 

As a joke or attempt to embarrass Mayor Emily Larson, somebody has erected a sign that says “Camp Larson. No Permit Required.” The property, however, is not owned by the city, said Communications Director Kate Van Daele. 

“I can tell you that that is clearly not a city sign, and the location … is on MNDOT property. They have engaged with the camper, and CHUM outreach staff,” she said in a Friday email. Interstate Highway 35 runs through a tunnel directly beneath the park. Camping is not allowed in city parks, she said, explaining “This is on MNDOT property and therefore needs to go through their channels.” 

“Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken and I are working together to address this shared challenge. He and I spoke this morning to determine how best to resolve the concern,” said Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross. “The encampment is on MNDOT property. Consequently, the leaders at MNDOT are the primary decision-makers. Their organization has an established protocol for working through this type of challenge.”

The Police Department’s Mental Health Unit is involved in approaching individuals and determining how best to provide support for them so they can leave the encampment, he added.

“As an advocate for our business community members, I understand and appreciate the concerns expressed by business owners and business operators within our beautiful Fitger’s Inn and surrounding shopping and business area," said Ross. "This area is a jewel within our beloved community. This business community wants to have the encampment reduced or relocated, in a humane and productive manner, as soon as possible.”

MNDOT officials said they will address the situation but did not provide details.

"MnDOT is aware of the encampment at this location and is working through our internal process to determine next steps. We prioritize safety and humane and respectful treatment of people when addressing encampments," said Margie Nelson, District 1 public affairs coordinator.