City officials discussed Superior’s homeless encampments and park safety during a Wednesday, Nov. 17, public safety committee meeting. No action was taken due to a lack of quorum, but a common thread emerged: Reporting an incident is key.
“Calling 911, as insignificant as it seems to people, it does two things. One, it gets a response for a squad to get there, so it increases our presence at that location, and then two, that allows us to start collecting data that, you know, we can then use to decide if we need to allocate our resources differently or have a special project at a location or look at some other options,” said Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander.
That’s true whether a passer-by sees what looks like a fight at a city park, or a business owner finds someone trespassing inside their building after hours. Without a report, options are limited, Alexander said.
A rising tide
The size and scope of homelessness in the city, particularly the encampment underneath the Belknap Street viaduct, has shifted this year.
“Historically, as far back as I can remember, there has always been a population of people that have lived in that area for some amount of time, and for the most part, it stayed relatively out of sight, out of mind,” Mayor Jim Paine told the committee.
This year, he said, the size of the camp dramatically increased due to a number of factors. The pandemic may have pushed people on the brink into homelessness; former camping sites in Duluth are no longer available; and construction workers have filled every available hotel room in the city, including the low-cost rooms that are often a resource for people living in homelessness.
The large camp — community policing officer Bradley Jago said the population hovers around 12 — has caused frustration and complaints from businesses and residents in the area.
The police department has taken a people-first, proactive approach to the situation, Paine said, “recognizing these are human beings that are living in some of the worst conditions that people can live in in the United States,” and trying to protect their health, safety and dignity as they search for solutions.
Much of the space the encampment sits on is public right of way, where any citizen is allowed to be at any time of day, officials said. Unless the city has the resources and beds for people, their authority to displace them is limited. Relocating the camp would not address the issue, they said, and could bring up new problems.
Despite their frustration, local businesses have been accommodating, allowing people to utilize restrooms and even erecting fencing. The public works and parks departments joined together to clean up the camp with dump trucks a couple of times. Police have stepped up enforcement in the area. They can enforce laws against trespassing, theft and other criminal activities.
“But even in those cases, I still think we need to address the root cause,” Alexander said.
Jago and coordinated response specialist Jennifer Stank have been visiting the camp several times a week to build relationships with the people who live there and to learn about those root causes. That includes one person who has lived at the camp for six years.
“We’ve really tried to establish an environment that is healthy and humane for the individuals that are down there now without creating an environment that will attract others,” Jago said.
A weekly rundown of reports to the area gives police a snapshot of what’s going on. If a building has a trespassing issue and it isn’t reported, that picture is incomplete.
“Something does not have to be an emergency to call 911,” Paine said. “In fact, I’ve encouraged people to do so because that’s information for our officers.”
A new software tool, expected to launch by the end of the year, could also enhance the amount of online reporting the department is capable of taking. Alexander said reports could be made through the online tool and responded to by civilian staff.
Driven by social media posts about incidents at Wade Bowl Park, Superior City Council President Tylor Elm, who represents the 6th District where the park is located, asked the Superior Police Department to look into reports from the site.
According to Alexander, there have been 36 calls for service to the park this year, a mix that included animal complaints, found articles and eight physical altercations. That number is 20% below the four-year average for the park. Police were called to Wade Bowl 25 times in 2020, 70 in 2019 and 42 in 2018.
Parks, recreation and forestry director Linda Cadotte said she receives a ridiculous number of calls from people regarding safety concerns at city parks, usually a day or two after the event occurred. She encourages people to call 911 when something is happening instead.