Duluth to spend $165k to keep vagrants, drugs out of parking ramp

Evidently it’s no secret that vagrants, drug use and defecation pose a public safety problem at several downtown Duluth city parking ramps. But the city’s unofficial policy of tolerating the behavior hasn’t worked out so well, judging from an intense city council discussion covered in the News Tribune.

Noah Schuchman, chief administrative officer, said people have used downtown ramps to engage in public defecation, drug use, confrontational behavior and have often left behind used syringes. He said these types of problems have occurred in other ramps as well, but the Tech Village structure has been the greatest source of complaints, making it the city’s first priority, with other ramps likely to be subsequently addressed, as adequate resources become available.

Conditions have deteriorated at one ramp in particular, Tech Village. It’s to the point where city hall recommended spending $165,000 on safety measures to protect not only the customers who use the facility, but the reliable source of revenue they provide.

In addition to cameras, the ramp would be equipped with quick-close doors to allow vehicles to exit and enter the structure with minimal opportunity for a passerby to use that opportunity to gain entrance. Meanwhile, pedestrian access would be restricted by requiring users to scan a parking ticket to unlock exterior doors.

Schuchman noted that if people decide to stop using public ramps due to safety concerns and sanitation issues, the city will be deprived of the very parking revenue stream it depends upon to take care of them.

Nevertheless, one Duluth city councilor struggled with whether to join her colleagues in voting to push back against those misusing public parking ramps.

[City councilor Azrin] Awal suggested the city could do more to provide public restrooms downtown, receptacles where people could safely dispose of used syringes and perhaps even managed injection sites.

“The behaviors we are talking about may be associated with individuals experiencing homelessness. And it’s not their fault. Addiction is not their fault. It’s a medical condition that the community needs to provide resources for. So, that’s why I’m feeling a little uncomfortable with this,” she said.

Yet others on the city council questioned whether they’re doing anyone any good by allowing parking ramps to be used as a personal campsite and drug den.

However, 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf said she talked to Ben Hatfield, CEO of the Human Development Center, a local organization that works with vulnerable individuals, and he supports the enhanced ramp security, even though it would likely mean fewer people freely seeking shelter there.

“We really need to divert these individuals and help them into spaces and places where they can get the proper care and services they need,” Randorf said. “And that isn’t in the dark corners and recesses of these structures.”

In fact, Duluth has spent millions of pandemic funds on so-called affordable housing and interventional help for the homeless. But city officials appear to have finally drawn a line at preventing parking ramps from turning into homeless camps, protecting the citizens who rely on them.