A recent memo from Rochester City Administrator Alison Zelms cited to the “incredibly complex” nature for creating a long-term approach to tackling homelessness.
“There is a broad spectrum of need and underlying conditions and challenges that mean no one approach is likely to meet the needs of every homeless person,” she wrote to the Rochester City Council earlier this month.
A continued call for collaboration on the issue comes amid some uncertainty as the city council ponders whether to extend use of the Silver Lake Station as a day center for people experiencing homelessness.
The Landing MN, which has been operating the site under a city contract, has asked to extend the use through April 30, rather than winding down operations next month.
The request limits the city’s financial input of paying for utilities, which have cost $500 to $700 a month.
The council is expected to respond to the request Monday, but several members have said the arrangement is no longer a city function with the pandemic need waning.
“Our job is not to do what the county is supposed to do,” council member Shaun Palmer said of providing space for people who are homeless.
Others on the council also point to Olmsted County.
“I would strongly suggest the county is the lead here,” council member Nick Campion said. “They have the expertise. They have the staff. They have the understanding of all of the systems of human services.”
Council member Patrick Keane agreed the county is a natural leader on the topic, but acknowledged nuances in the issue.
“We all come at it with different goals,” he said, adding that city staff has been directed to find ways to work with the county and other agencies, rather than taking on a new mission.
County commissioners have repeatedly stated their goals are to help provide housing and limited emergency shelter, such as funding it provides for Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota to operate the nightly warming center at 200 Fourth St. SE, which has been extended to summer months with state and federal support.
“Our commitment about homelessness is that it should be a one-time occasion in someone’s life, and it should be brief,” County Board Chairwoman Stephanie Podulke told the city council earlier this year. “Our mandate is to find permanent housing for people, and that’s what we work on.”
She said this week that doesn’t preclude the city or another organization from addressing gaps in service.
Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said the county can’t take on all aspects of the complex issue, especially with limited funding available.
“We are part of the community solution; we are not the (only) solution,” she said.
She also cited a shift that happened during the pandemic.
“Until recently, almost all of the services that support our unsheltered homeless were out of community philanthropy,” she said, adding that local government bodies can’t respond to all needs without community support.
County and city officials have cited the need for more collaborative efforts since the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.
“Every partner acknowledges that by working together, we achieved better outcomes than working in silos,” Rochester Public Library Director Audrey Betcher said in a recent report to the city council.
City Council President Brooke Carlson said the need for a long-term plan could point to a potential extension of The Landing’s use of Silver Lake Station as it seeks to establish its own day center location.
“It gives us more time as a collective in our community to figure out how we do this and what the city’s role is,” she said during a recent council discussion.
Others, however, call the service redundant, saying the Salvation Army’s day center, as well the nightly warming center, but Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said such arguments fail to acknowledge gaps in service.
If the city-supported center closes, Betcher said service will not exist between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. daily, as well as 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Norton said those gaps will likely mean people finding shelter in the city’s skyways and subways, as well as the library and other public spaces, which has been a concern for downtown business owners, as well as law enforcement.
“If the county is going to turn its back, the city needs to step up,” she said.
Olmsted County Housing Director Dave Dunn said the potential evening and weekend gaps highlight the differing goals of city and county elected officials. Where county commissioners see a mandate in helping people find safe housing, he said they also see public safety in skyways, parks and other Rochester locations as a primary city responsibility.
He said it doesn’t rule out collaboration that could have the city supporting a day center and the county supporting nighttime shelter, at least for the short term.
“In a lot of ways, it’s peanut butter and jelly,” he said. “They can go together very well.”