No solution, but a start
Homelessness is not a crime.
“Finding a place to sleep is not a criminal activity,” Rochester City Attorney Jason Loos told a crowd gathered at the Mayo Civic Center Wednesday evening.
Called together by Mayor Kim Norton, social workers, advocates, concerned citizens and others joined voices to highlight community needs in addressing homelessness in Rochester.
With a December count of nearly 600 households in Olmsted County facing homelessness or at risk of losing their home, Norton said she’s fielded numerous calls regarding the issue since taking office in January.
Many of those calls have been about people sleeping in the city’s skyways.
For an answer, she turned to Loos, who noted the public skyway is similar to a sidewalk, and anyone is allowed to use it. City ordinance prohibits blocking someone’s path, but merely being in the skyway to stay warm is not a crime.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t result in interaction with police officers.
A little more than 12 hours before the mayor opened Wednesday’s discussion, Rochester police officers were encouraging six people to avoid blocking a section of the skyway near the First Street parking ramp.
The officers were investigating an unrelated incident shortly before 7 a.m. Wednesday when they spotted the group, according to Capt. Casey Moilanen.
“It made it difficult for people to pass through the skyway system,” he said of the group and their belongings.
With the morning rush of people coming into work and the skyway starting to get busier, Moilanen said officers talked with the people, offered resources, advised them where they could get breakfast and talked to them about all their stuff being in the skyway.
“They voluntarily packed up their stuff and left,” he said.
Police Chief Jim Franklin said he was proud of how the officers handled the concern.
“They did the right thing,” he said. “They treated them humanely.”
Franklin said it was an opportunity to interact with the group and make sure they knew what resources are available, which he said he sees as a more important role for the department.
Wednesday night, Franklin said homelessness is a growing national concern, but he believes local efforts can help.
“There is a tremendous amount of strength in this community to come together,” he said, pointing to recent efforts during Project Community Connect at Mayo High School, which provided a variety of services to homeless residents.
At the same time, Franklin said several gaps in services were seen during the recent cold snap. He pointed to a lack of emergency shelter and after-hours housing, as well as concerns about how needs are ranked in finding resources for individuals and families.
Such gaps can become even larger due to the unique nature of the problem, said Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden.
“There are many, many stories and many pathways that lead to homelessness,” she said, noting county social workers and others do their best to reach out and provide resources to those willing to accept help.
However, she acknowledged gaps exist.
Others in the crowd described many of them, including a lack of beds for homeless families, limited training for volunteers and an inability to share information regarding available resources.
In all, Norton identified 15 to 20 gaps that were raised.
“That’s way more than I thought we would have,” she said.
On the other hand, Norton said, she walked away with a growing list of people willing to help find solutions.
“I know I have a list of more services and names than I had before I got here,” she said, encouraging others to sign up with her office to stay connected on the issue and future discussions.
She also asked those in attendance to indicate if they were willing to tackle specific issues, from starting an online tool to connect services to looking at options for creating a warming center that would be available throughout the coldest months of the year.
She said she felt encouraged, if not a bit overwhelmed.
“My head is swimming,” she said, shortly after wrapping up the nearly two-hour discussion.
Near the end of that discussion, Laura Briggs said she also felt encouraged.
As someone who has sought shelter in the city’s skyways off and on during the last four months, she said it was good to hear the concerns of the city’s homeless residents were being considered.
She said she’s seeking medical care at Mayo Clinic and has been working to find a stable housing. She’s stayed at Dorothy Day House and went to the Salvation Army’s warming center when it was open. When those options are closed, she said the skyways are the only place she can turn.
While she’s secured health care and food assistance, she said housing remains a struggle due to physical limitations and other concerns.
“I want to get on my feet, but I feel hindered and blocked in some ways,” she said.
Norton said she hopes discussions started Wednesday can find ways to help Briggs and others overcome barriers.
She said she plans to take the information gathered Wednesday and consider next steps to move toward addressing the concerns raised.