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As temperatures drop, winter will test Rochester’s new homelessness services

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A man speaks in front of a white wall in between two women sitting.
Tom Parlin of Catholic Charities speaks at a press conference alongside Rochester, Minn., Mayor Kim Norton, right, and Rochester Community Warming Center coordinator Tricia Kramer inside the city's newest warming shelter on Nov. 12, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Earlier this month, Suzi Mueller got to the Mayo Civic Center early so she could get a good seat for a training session on interacting with Rochester's homeless population.

She said it's something most people who aren’t homeless don't think much about. But Mueller is a volunteer at her church's thrift store, and working with people who are homeless is a big part of her job there. She wants to get better at it.

"I think for me, it's just being more sensitive,” she said. “Sometimes you don't get in a real conversation with people. But if you have some knowledge about where they're coming [from], I think that helps us to figure out how best to help them out."

Mueller joined a roomful of social workers, school employees, law enforcement officers and the general public for a crash course in using empathy in their interactions with people who are living without a reliable home.

The training is just one piece of a much broader effort in the Rochester area, aimed at expanding support for the city's homeless population as cold weather approaches.

And it comes on the heels of a telling moment: Last winter, business owners complained about the number of people sleeping in the city’s downtown skyway overnight. The complaints forced city and county leaders to take stock of the services available to support the area’s homeless population — and to improve them.

In the meantime, Rochester's homeless population is growing. Local officials say substance abuse and untreated mental health issues are partly to blame, alongside the city's quickly dwindling supply of inexpensive housing.

At the training session at the civic center, Tom Stenzel said he's seeing the phenomenon play out in real time in his work with the Society of St. Vincent De Paul.

"We're dealing with a lot more rent problems,” he said. “Because in Rochester, the rent seems to be going up higher and the availability of affordable housing seems to be less."

The Rochester Public Library co-sponsored the training session.

Kimberly Edson, the library’s reader services director, said she and her colleagues often interact with homeless patrons because the library is one place they can go during the day for warmth, water or a bathroom without having to buy anything.

But Edson says it's new territory for much of the rest of the city.

"We need to come to terms as a community — come to terms with how we address people in our area who are unsheltered and experiencing high levels of poverty,” she said.

Just down the street from the library in a small commercial strip owned by Olmsted County, Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota is preparing to open its new warming shelter. The opening is being funded as a partnership among several nonprofits, local governments and Mayo Clinic, but will require charitable donations to continue operating in the future.

The space will be open every night this winter. It has room for 30 people to sleep, several bathrooms and showers and a washer and dryer for laundry.

Bunkbeds sit in a white room.
Bunk beds sit inside of a new warming shelter in Rochester, Minn., on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Olmsted County housing director Dave Dunn said the idea is not just to give people a place to sleep every night. This shelter is meant to go a step further — to be a portal for people to access social services.

"By having this central point where people can be,” he said, “it makes it a lot easier to provide services or make services available."

Dunn said last winter's skyway overcrowding — and ensuing complaints — prompted county staff to rethink the ways they’re able to assist the homeless as the city grows.

They found that 116 people in the city are living without homes or shelters. That's significantly more than the 80 people the county had expected to find in those circumstances.

Dunn said the county's research also revealed it has a good track record of connecting homeless people with stable housing, but struggles to help them keep it.

And there continue to be communication gaps among city, county and nonprofit staff about which shelter is available on any given night.

The new partnerships, he said, are designed to help the disparate organizations make sure “we are getting together, talking about what options are available, talking about beds that are open at any given time, and matching those beds with people who are experiencing homelessness,” Dunn said.

The new shelter will open in mid-December, and it will test whether these new partnerships and resources are enough to support people living on the margins.