'I didn't choose to be homeless." Voices from Duluth's CHUM

BY APRILL EMIG | Lake Voice There are 45 beds at Churches United in Ministry (CHUM) homeless shelter and they are almost always full.

Five beds were open in the shelter on Thursday, Oct. 22 but manager Kim Randolph said it wouldn’t last long.

The smallest bedroom in CHUM has only two beds. An old TV room has been converted into a bedroom downstairs for overflow.

“If they had a bed the night before, they get to keep it today,” Randolph said. “They just have to show improvement - that they’re looking for housing, employment.”

Nearly 50 people entered CHUM over the course of half an hour - about five were children. Most days the shelter will see 100 to 200 individuals. Kevin James Fry is one of them.

Kevin James Fry (left) has been staying in CHUM for four weeks. After donating all his belongings, he came up to Duluth with nothing but determination and a positive attitude. Sitting with him is friend and fellow resident _____

Fry has been living in the shelter for nearly four weeks, but it isn’t his first time here.

“I was here in the summer of 2004 for a short time,” Fry said.

After a period living in Wadena, he moved back to Duluth with nothing but his clothes.

A bed in a men's dorm. Residents are told not to leave personal belongings in their space because they may be stolen.

“It wasn’t cost efficient to rent a $350 truck to move my things up here,” he said.

He’s been staying in CHUM since he landed in the city.

With a vacancy rate of only 3.7 percent (meaning there are about three openings for every 100 homes), Fry and others find themselves in a difficult market.

“If they didn’t have the shelter here, a lot of us would be in the psych wards or prisons,” Fry said. “I’ve seen some who get a place to stay after three weeks, others it might take five or six months.”

But Fry maintains a positive attitude.

“I never lose hope and we always help each other out,” Fry said. “All of us should be enshrined in our civic duty. We should try to keep Duluth clean, keep it nice, and most importantly keep it safe.”

Many residents will get lockers to store their personal belongings in. This helps prevent theft and allows them room for privacy.

His friend Mike Precord agreed.

“The staff here are top notch. They keep us very safe from any outsiders.”

But some outsiders, like Robert Webb, are there for a reason.

“I don’t stay in the shelter - I sleep outside in the car with the dogs,” Webb said.

A sunny room in the women's dorm has six beds. Three of them are open, but manager Kim Randolph says they will fill up very soon.

Webb came to CHUM with his girlfriend Christina Thompson on Oct. 1. After living together in her apartment for two years, her father died. She came to Duluth to support her mother. Thompson’s 18 year old daughter joined, but quickly left CHUM to live with a friend.

The dogs - Stella and Romeo, both chihuahuas - came with Thompson and Webb. They wear sweaters during the day and sleep with Webb under blankets at night. Webb gets the dog food from the CHUM food shelf across the street from the shelter.

The single bathroom in the men's dorm area, which houses about 20 beds. A sign indicates for men to stand closer to the toilet to avoid messes that need to be cleaned by CHUM's small staff.

This is where most of the residents and others get their food as well. At 2:30 on Thursday the residents gathered together to load food into the shelter kitchen. They get hot dinners from local churches on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For now, Thompson and Webb snack on pepperoni pizza buns.

Thompson has been receiving disability benefits for the past few years and is having trouble finding housing in Duluth. Because she came from St. Cloud, she doesn’t get priority the way locals do.

And even if she could find a home that takes disability payments and allows dogs, she likely would not be approved due to credit.

Robert Webb and dog Romeo (left) with Christina Thompson and dog Stella. They have been staying in CHUM for four weeks. Thompson sleeps indoors while Webb stays in the car to keep the dogs safe. Both dogs have sweaters, blankets and get food from CHUM's food shelf.

“It’s not fair that everything is based on credit,” Thompson said. “I lived in my old apartment for seven years and never missed rent - I was a great tenet.” But because of her poor credit, she rarely passes the initial screening for apartments.

This is her first time being homeless.

“It’s an adjustment,” Thompson said. “I’m so used to having everything I needed right there.”

And Webb doesn’t enjoy sleeping in his 1999 Ford Taurus.

Inside Robert Webb and Christina Thompson's locker. This is everything they own, excluding a few blankets they keep in their car.

“It’s not comfortable - even if I lean the seat all the way back,” he said.

Thompson says people need to know that being homeless isn’t a choice people make. She began filling out an application for disability benefits in Duluth months before she got here. But still she has to wait.

“We didn’t make the choice to be homeless. This is just what happened,” Thompson said. 

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