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Rochester officials seek solutions to keep homeless out of skyways

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Two people gather their belongings after sleeping the night in the skyway
Two people begin to gather their belongings after sleeping the night in the skyway in February in downtown Rochester, Minn.
Ken Klotzbach | Rochester Post Bulletin

Most of the time, the Silver Lake fire station east of downtown Rochester sits empty.

But it could be part of a solution to shelter the homeless this winter, said Mayor Kim Norton. 

"It has urinals, it has sinks, has toilets," she said, as well as showers, lockers and a kitchen. "It is set up to have the kind of space that we need."

Even though it's the middle of summer, Norton is among several local public officials thinking about how better to shelter a growing number of homeless people. Dozens lined the city's skyways this past winter, even though other shelter options were open.

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton stands at the empty Silver Lake fire station.
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton stands outside the empty Silver Lake fire station. She said the space has everything the city needs to shelter more homeless this winter. The challenge will be getting it up to code before winter hits.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

The challenge will be getting the fire station up to code before winter hits. That will likely cost the city and the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, Norton said. 

"That's why we're all feeling pinched," she said. "Because if not this, then what? Then we're back to another winter with only below-zero nights covered."

When temps fell below zero, the Salvation Army offered a temporary warming shelter, and it plans to do so again this winter. But officials say their limited, volunteer staff has been strained with a 50 percent increase in people served — in just two years. 

County officials say the overall number of homeless people isn't skyrocketing. Since 2014, a yearly count conducted by the county has counted somewhere between 400 and 500 unsheltered homeless people. The 2018 number was 497.

But people experiencing homelessness have become more visible in the downtown area. Local officials don't know why, but suspect it's due to a complex mix of factors: demographic growth, a lack of affordable housing, more evictions for failure to pay rent, and more prolific drug and alcohol use. 

Walter Hanson, who owns a Norweigian-goods store in the downtown skyway, recalls physically intervening one night to stop what he calls an aggressive panhandler who was hounding two women. 

"The group that we had the most constant interaction with were a little bit more antagonistic," he said. "They seemed to be trying to see how far they could push it."

Hanson said the city and local police have been too relaxed about the situation. City ordinance prevents police from ordering someone to leave a skyway if there's no illegal activity, though the City Council is considering changes to that ordinance. 

A few doors down, clothing store owner Svaar Vinje said he's concerned the situation will affect Rochester's reputation and deter visitors. 

Svaar Vinje stands in his downtown clothing shop.
Svaar Vinje stands in his clothing shop in downtown Rochester. He said more homeless used the skyways for shelter this past winter, and worries that their presence there will deter visitors to the city.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

"We need the people who do business with us and who come to Rochester to feel safe and comfortable," he said. 

Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden is among the local officials trying to address the problem. Kiscaden said Rochester, like most cities, has always had challenges housing the homeless. But a recent boom of high-end construction downtown has displaced cheap housing and hotels and exacerbated the problem.

"We've eliminated a lot of the stock of housing that the lowest income residents of our community could live in," she said. "I'm not surprised in some ways that we are seeing more people who are unsheltered homeless and visible in our community."

Kiscaden said people living in the skyway are probably the tip of the iceberg of Rochester's homelessness problem. City and county officials are in the process of hiring a consultant to assess just how deep the problem goes and what can be done about it.

Rochester Public Schools are also seeing troubling trends. 

The district hasn't seen the number of homeless students skyrocket, said Melissa Brandt, who is in charge of connecting homeless students with social services. She counted 428 homeless students in the school year that just ended — roughly the same amount as the year before.

But Brandt said their circumstances are getting worse.

"What we're seeing is an increase in the severity of the homelessness," she said. 

Brandt said she's glad the homeless people sheltering in skyways have brought greater visibility to the problem, and prodded city leaders into action. But she also fears homeless kids may be left out of the discussion. She said they tend to be hidden from view because they are doubled-up with friends or relatives, or living in sub-par housing. 

Brandt said just converting an old fire house to a shelter that's open all winter won't be enough to help the kids she works with. 

"When I have to look in the eyes of a kindergartner who is sleeping in their car, that to me an equally challenging problem," she said.