Sally Willis-Oeltjen fought back tears Monday as she recalled the 18 months her son was homeless and had few options for help.
She said she knew tough love was the right answer while he struggled with personal problems, but she also worried about what would happen while he was sleeping in Rochester’s skyways or wandering the streets during the day.
“When all this happened, The Landing was not here yet,” she said, noting the day center for people facing homelessness could have given her son a place to land and his mother a bit of comfort.
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“Rochester cannot afford to displace The Landing,” Willis-Oeltjen said. “The Salvation Army and the Dorothy Day (Hospitality) House are a godsend, but they are not enough.”
The Landing MN, which has a city contract to operate the day center, asked for the extension without added city funding, aside from covering utility expenses.
On Monday, supporters turned out at the Rochester City Council meeting to express their support.
“We shouldn’t have to fight to keep The Landing alive,” said Sherry Irvin, a day center staff member who joined nine speakers during an extended public-comment period at council meeting.
Not all speakers supported the requested extension of The Landing’s use of Silver Lake Station.
“I’m alarmed at the increase in incidents we’ve had at Silver Lake Park this year,” said Ben Owen, a co-owner of Silver Lake Boats and Bikes, who prefaced his comments with support for The Landing’s work, but a desire to see another location.
What happened: Rochester City Council directed city staff to prepare a lease for an eight-month extension of The Landing MN’s use of Silver Lake Station as a day center for people experiencing homelessness.
Why does this matter: The city’s contract with The Landing is scheduled to end Aug. 30.
What's next: The council will be asked to approve the final agreement on Aug. 16.
The city council unanimously supported plans to extend the use of Silver Lake Station, but the extra time comes with defined expectations.
“I’m nervous that we will be back here in April facing the same situation,” Rochester City Council member Nick Campion said Monday as he introduced expectations for ramping down the use of the city-owned property.
The added requirements, which include an established schedule for transitioning out of the former fire station by April 30, persuaded some council members to support the extension after initially voicing some hesitancy.
“”To say the city has been heartless I think is wrong,” said council member Shaun Palmer before joining the unanimous council approval. “I think there is a balancing act that takes place, and I hope that when April 30 comes by we have this resolved, as far as another location.”
Following Monday’s meeting, Landing co-founder Holly Fifield said the organization’s board will meet Tuesday with plans to review the conditions added by the council.
“Until we see it in writing, it’s going to be hard to respond,” she said.
Council member Patrick Keane said the agreement being considered creates a shift after The Landing’s contract with the city ends Aug. 30
“They are not being contractors for us at this point,” he said of the new agreement.
City Administrator Alison Zelms said it would be difficult to extend the agreement beyond April 30, since upgrades made to the building with federal funds aren’t sufficient for long-term use.
“There are existing code concerns,” she told the council, noting the city would likely be required to make upgrades for longer use as a day center.
Dan Fifield, a Landing co-founder, has cited the same concerns in the past, adding that the goal of the requested extension is to provide time to find a permanent site for the organization to open a private day center.
Rochester Mayor Norton said extending the day center operation is critical.
“We are still in a pandemic,” she said. “We are still in a crisis situation, and winter is coming.”
She noted The Landing stepped up when asked to respond to community needs, and she encouraged others to follow suit.
“I think there are people who will step up when they realize that the city council is taking a short-term action, that there’s longer financial support provided,” she said.
Monday’s council action directed city staff to work on a lease agreement for the property, which will be voted on by the council during its Aug. 16 meeting.