Warming Center (copy)

An empty space in a strip mall at 200 Fourth St. SE has been proposed for a temporary, five-month warming center, providing overnight shelter for those who need it during the winter months. 

As colder days loom, plans for a new warming center in Rochester continue moving forward.

The goal is to have renovations complete at the 200 Fourth St. SE site by Nov. 1, with plans to open the doors nightly for area homeless residents by Dec. 1.

“We’re moving fast, and it’s exciting,” Olmsted County Housing and Redevelopment Director Dave Dunn said.

He said several different aspects of the project are producing results, but volunteer training and other efforts need to wait until after the renovations are complete and the space can be accessed.

Mat Miller, the county’s director of facilities and building operations, said renovation plans are being finalized and the county must obtain city building permits and get quotes from contractors before work can start in October.

Preliminary plans for the county-owned site call for bunk beds to accommodate 30 people in the 2,100-square-foot space. Additionally, three bathrooms and three separate showers are being proposed, along with a small kitchenette.

Miller said details regarding code requirements, which could include the addition of a sprinkler system, are still being researched.

Trent Fluegel, the county’s housing resource coordinator, said the anticipated hours of operation are expected to be from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. each night through the end of March.

As preparations for the space continue, Robert Tereba, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, said similar efforts are being made on the operations side.

Applications for a warming center coordinator are being accepted, and Tereba said he hopes to find someone from Rochester to fill the position. The agency also will be hiring a paid night manager in the future.

Tereba said volunteers will be sought once staff is in place.

“We’re building up the network and everything, going from zero to 60, in a very short order,” he said.

While Catholic Charities will operate the building at night, city and county officials are also researching options for using the space during the day.

Fluegel said the use would not be as a drop-in center or gathering place, but it could allow social workers or advocates a place to meet individually with people facing homelessness.

Tereba said such an arrangement could complement the warming center service.

“The daytime use would not be under the direction of Catholic Charities, but we are certainly open to the option of having that space available for the right outreach workers to be present there,” he said.

The effort to create a warming center follows a community discussion that started after homeless residents were seen using the city’s skyways as shelter on cold nights.

City and county officials, as well as business leaders, started discussing options last winter, but a proposed location wasn’t publicly presented until Rochester Mayor Kim Norton put the city’s former fire station at Silver Lake Park on the table last month.

The council agreed to fund up to $457,000 in potential renovations, but county officials soon offered the alternative site, which is closer to the skyway system. Cost of renovating and operating the site is estimated at $260,000 to $280,000 and is expected to be split, with the city and county each funding a third of the cost. The remainder is expected to be covered by local businesses, including Mayo Clinic and the Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

As work moves forward on the warming center, the Rochester City Council is also preparing to consider policies to limit overnight activity in the city’s skyways.

City Attorney Jason Loos said options could be presented to the council next month.

Several council members voiced support for reducing the number of people sleeping in the skyways, citing public health concerns, but said they don’t want to take action before an alternative is available.

The planned Fourth Street warming center is expected to have a limited lifespan. In offering the site south of the Government Center, county officials noted it is considered an option for expanding government offices, which could occur in two years.

With that in mind, city, county and community officials are working with consultants from the Corporation for Supportive Housing to develop a long-term strategy to address homelessness in the community.

Fluegel said consultants are talking with key officials weekly and planning meetings with various groups, including people with experience of being homeless in Rochester, as they develop a proposal.

The county and city are each funding a third of the approximately $48,000 in fees for the consultant, with Mayo Clinic, Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and other private entities pitching in the remaining third.

“I’m looking forward to learning together with our partners, our community and the folks we serve,” Olmsted County Deputy Administrator Paul Fleissner said of the long-range effort.

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