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Rochester business owners worry about homeless in skyways

April 13, 2019
Two people begin to gather their belongings after sleeping the night in the skyway by the First Street parking ramp and Double Tree Hotel in Rochester, Minn. Several people sleep in this area nightly. (Ken Klotzbach/The Rochester Post-Bulletin via AP)

ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — Svaar Vinje wants to make sure the increased number of homeless people in Rochester’s skyways doesn’t discourage visitors.

“We’re trying to identify ways to curb the amount of people who are causing distress and safety concerns for our Mayo Clinic visitors and our patients and our customers,” said the owner of Knight’s Chamber in the Shops At University Square.

On a recent Friday morning, he met with Rochester Mayor Kim Norton and others to discuss concerns raised by downtown business owners, as well as a specific group of visitors.

“I have a close personal relationship with the Jehovah Witnesses, and they reached out to me,” Vinje said.

He said he’s received emails from Jehovah Witnesses who attended a recent meeting at Mayo Civic Center and cited safety concerns as they encountered homeless residents in the skyway and Shops At University Square.

Vinje told the Post-Bulletin he’s encouraged that changes are possible after talking with the mayor and other city officials.

“It was a very good discussion,” he said. “We’re attempting to identify the legal boundaries of what constraints the city has and does not have, and also what issues we are having with the people downtown.”

Norton agreed that the meeting went well, noting it was just one of a series of discussions she’s had in recent months, from two public sessions to small, informal meetings, like the one with Vinje.

“It was an important conversation to have,” Norton said of the recent meeting.

She said it was as important for city officials to hear the concerns of business owners as it was for members of the business community to learn efforts were being made to address concerns.

Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin, who was part of the discussion, said such communication is key to finding solutions.

“It was a great opportunity to see the issue through another lens,” he said, noting the police department is seeking opportunities to increase patrols downtown.

At the same time, he’s noted that as long as no laws are being broken, people have the right to be in the public skyways at any time of the day.

“Therein lies the frustration: Someone can legally sleep in the skyway, as long as they are not hindering traffic,” Vinje said, noting he’s witnessed homeless residents doing more than simply being in public spaces, citing concerns about harassment, aggressive panhandling and drug use.

Franklin told the business owners and others to call his department if they witness illegal activity.

Kathleen Harrington, executive director of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, said it was an important message to hear, adding that she plans to work with Franklin and City Attorney Jason Loos to coordinate efforts to inform downtown business owners and employees about who to call and when.

She said she hopes doing so will address some of the fears surrounding the issue.

“When people don’t understand what they can do, that increases the fear,” she said.

During a February meeting held by Norton, Harrington said she believes many chamber members would support efforts to work with the city and county to address the homelessness issue.

Rochester City Council Member Nick Campion said the goal must be to find a holistic approach that addresses the many concerns about homelessness.

“For every facet, people can envision a solution,” he said but noted all potential solutions would not have the best outcomes.

He said he’s willing to consider options as they are presented to the council, but the city must be careful.

“We really need to look at the state of the law and what the city can do,” he said, noting ethical and moral considerations also must be part of the discussion.

Norton said she continues to meet with people to discuss concerns and look for potential solutions.

Vinje said that’s good to hear, and he plans to send the message to his contacts with the Jehovah Witnesses.

“If there is still going to be panhandling and there are still going to be people in the skyway, I want to make the Jehovah Witnesses know before they get here that we realize this is an issue and we are addressing this,” he said. “We want them to know we are not just ignoring this or encouraging this.”

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Information from: Post-Bulletin, http://www.postbulletin.com