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Yurt program offers new solutions to housing for the homeless

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DULUTH, MN- On Wednesday afternoon in Duluth's Endion neighborhood, volunteers gathered to help build a place one homeless couple will soon call home.

"We just don't have housing, so a yurt is a solution to housing," said Deb Holeman with CHUM.

The homeowners agreed to allow the wood structure, wrapped in a vinyl tarp, to be built on their property.

It's now one of three yurts being built on private property around Duluth by the American Indian Movement, an organization helping the homeless.

"This is one more couple who won't be out there looking for a place to stay. Won't be harassed. Won't be harassed by the police because they are in the wrong spot. They have permission to be here," said Kassie Helgerson, Chairperson for the American Indian Movement Twin Ports.

Here's how it works: Kassie Helgerson and her team at AIM take applications from people experiencing homelessness who want to live in a yurt.

After an evaluation process, they connect applicants with volunteers and property owners to find a space for their yurt.

"We try to choose people who want to make a difference in their lives, people who are willing to work at it. So we get them into a yurt, and then we help them," said Helgerson.

Once moved in, AIM will continue to support the occupant by providing amenities like a wood stove and food.

Helgerson said people who volunteer their land are able to be as involved in the process as they are comfortable.

"Some people will allow them to use their garbage; others we will come and pick it up once a week. Some people will allow them to use their bathroom or their shower; others will have a Porta Potty and go to the Damiano to shower," said Helgerson.

Michele Naar-Obed has a yurt in her backyard.

She said the experience has been rewarding and is happy to be a part of a different take on homeless housing.

"It has been a great experience, and it's good to be a part of this initiative. This is just spectacular that there could even be another alternative to the shelter system or community housing," said Naar-Obed.

Supplies to build the Yurts cost about $2,000 and are paid for by community donations to AIM.

In the future, groups like AIM would like to see more yurts on private and city property as a solution to the area's growing housing problem.

"When you're homeless, sometimes the thing you need to live is a safe space to be. Sometimes the thing you need to improve your life is a first step," said Helgerson. "This is the first step."

Right now, there are just three Duluth property owners who've allowed construction of a yurt for the program, one in the Endion neighborhood, as well as one in East Hillside and another near the mall.

The people selected to live in the yurts are required to complete community service during their stay.

As it stands now, yurts are not allowed to be built on city property in Duluth.

According to Helgerson, AIM has submitted a request to change that and it has the support of several Duluth city councliors.

In a statement, a city spokesperson said they're supportive of those backyard locations for now and plan to work with AIM on possible next steps.

“The City of Duluth is actively working with AIM to address yurts and have stated our support of them on private property. The City must also ensure basic safety for those wanting to live in them. We remain committed to working with AIM, the community, and City staff to best determine next steps."

Kate Van Daele, City Spokesperson

If you would like to take part in the program, they ask the location to be close to a bus stop.

If you would like to get involved, you can contact Kassie Helgerson at or 218-576-3220.

Natalie Grant

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