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Duluth Bethel: Staying afloat is hard in troubled times

By VENESSA OSTERGAARD
DCN Correspondent

Walking through the streets of Duluth during the winter months is nowhere near what one would define as pleasant. But when you put ten minutes of cold fingers into perspective with what others on Duluth’s streets have to deal with, your gloves seem to warm up. For many residences in our port, money, food and shelter have a history of being hard to come by.

A few societies and organizations in Duluth have been working for over a century to warm the hearts and fingers of cold individuals.

Through the good times and struggles, The Duluth Bethel Society has been on the hill, serving the community and people just passing through for as long as anyone remembers. Presently it is a place where a troubled individual can transition from one life to the next. But this was not always the focus. As the days turned to years, the Duluth Bethel aged with the trends of the community. It started as a religious place in the early 1900s, but has been transformed to serve the needs of Northeastern Minnesota and the Central Hillside as crime continues to rise.

The Bethel society was founded in 1873 by Robert Smith, Captain Kitwood and pastors that preached to the lawless, roaring sailor hoards. Starting on the corner of Superior Street on dry-goods boxes, they tried to "promote temporal and spiritual welfare of seamen and their families,� as accounted by the National Register.

The Duluth branch is the oldest human services agency in Northeastern Minnesota. Originally it was established to serve seamen, miners, lumberjacks, their families and segments of the floating population who moved into the port of Duluth. The Bethel was a place where a person could find food and shelter when they needed it.

The first building was constructed in 1889 on the corner of Lake Avenue and Sutphin Street, the pervious site of KBJR News. In the early years, Bethel was home to a men's reading room, Sunday school, gospel meetings, cooking school, mothers' meetings, boys' club, sewing school and nursery.

Tom Dawson is the current executive director at Duluth Bethel.

“When the hard times of the Depression hit, Bethel was a place to stay and warm up with a meal and a prayer,� Dawson said.

The era of the Glensheen’s in Duluth ended at the turn of the century. A city that was once home to the most millionaires per capita was beginning to face a financial depression in the early 1900s. This was when Bethel began to change its focus from a church mission to a rescue mission. According to an overview of the Bethel’s history, efforts to help save drunks, criminals and social outcasts blossomed between 1905 and 1910.

In 1908 the depression Duluth was facing began to pick up speed. Bethel saw the need to help the community stay afloat. A bread line was established to feed the unemployed that swarmed the city. Hundreds of men came to Bethel for a warm meal and shelter. The chapel and corridors were transformed into lodging where men would bed down on crumpled old newspapers. A now infamous picture, jokingly titled "Zoo Men" by Dawson, depicts this scene of men trying to get some sleep in a less than ideal situation.

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Photo courtesy of Tom Dawson, Duluth Bethel

The original Bethel was built in 1889 on Lake Avenue. To account for growth, the building went through several remodeling projects which included adding bathrooms, a fourth floor and lodging for the rising number of occupants coming into the port sanctuary. This building lasted 23 years.

In 1912 the current building was created to actually house members and visitors of the community. The cost of this addition was $80,000. It was built on top of the hill with a green light alerting sailors that it was a safe place for them to sleep.

Once the nationwide depression hit however, this was not even enough. Bethel was overflowing with homeless men in the 1930s. The city of Duluth asked Bethel to take on the task of caring for these men and it accepted its new responsibility for the community. The city contributed the use of the old city hall for added space in its endeavor.

The development of soup kitchen and shelter continued even after the depression lifted. In the early '70s it became known to the society that 95 percent of the people they fed and cared for were chemically dependent. It became apparent that progress to treating these problems should become Bethel’s next change.

The Bethel Society spent 50 years as a mission changing the lifestyles of many seamen, loggers and minors. Its goal was to get these individuals to live lives of chastity, faith and God. Today, Bethel still relies on faith and prayer as part of its rehabilitation. However now you must be sent to one of Bethel’s many rehabilitation programs by a judge.

Bethel found need to open a few chemical dependency programs, get involved with the county's drug courts and has a minimal corrections facility. This facility offers residential and non-residential programs. They are designed for people who are chemically dependent and need community correction. Courts can agree to let the prosecuted serve their sentences at Bethel or, as Dawson explained it as “somewhat of a house arrest,� where they can go to work, but are monitored through our center.

Warming hearts and hands has been the consistent factor throughout Bethel’s long history in Duluth. And for that reason it continues to be successful and dedicated to helping put lives back together.