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Bunk beds at the Rochester Community Warming Center, 200 Fourth St. SE, don't provide ideal social distancing conditions, but an overflow site at the Soldiers Field Golf Course clubhouse is being used to provide some added space for guests. 

As area residents take to their homes amid COVID-19 concerns, residents without homes are feeling left in the cold.

“They basically abandoned us,” said Corey Jacob of Rochester’s decision to close the city’s public library.

He said the crisis that led to closing public buildings may have been shocking to some, but not in the homeless community. 

“Us homeless are probably taking this is in stride because every day to us is a crisis,” he said.

Still, Jacob, who lives in his van, said the library is his main source of drinking water. Finding an alternative source has been difficult.

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Corey Jacob plays with his cat, Nighty, in 2018. Living in his van means Jacob relies on public sources of water and restroom facilities throughout the day, and options are being limited amid COVID-19 cencerns.

He said the library closure also limits access to downtown public restrooms.

Jacob is not alone in seeking ways to cope.

Dan Fifield, co-founder of The Landing MN, said many of Rochester’s homeless residents are voicing uncertainty about where they will stay or how they will access the things they need to survive.

“I think a lot of them are just wondering what they are going to do,” he said.

Corey Jacob’s struggle is that he lives in a van. While he considers it his home, that doesn’t hold up with the Minnesota state statute about leaving animals in vehicles. That is where Jacob’s issues with the Rochester police began.

Volunteers with The Landing are holding a Saturday Supper this weekend in front of the Rochester Public Library, with plans to hand out sack lunches and other supplies.

Fifield, a former emergency room nurse, said precautions are planned to help prevent the spread of the disease.

“We have to take care of them, and make sure they are pink, warm and breathing, and have all the basic necessities,” he said.


The Rochester Community Warming Center plans to continue opening its doors on a nightly basis, extending hours from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., but spacing requirements limit available beds. 

Olmsted County is also securing overflow space at the former Crossroads Bible College campus, which is now operated by Bear Creek Christian Church as Mayowood Acres. 

Dave Dunn, Olmsted County’s housing director, said the county continues to work with the city and nonprofit partners to find additional answers to concerns facing the homeless population, which includes seeking apartments, hotels and other shelter as options to temporarily house people

Michael Gwanjaye, the warming center’s coordinator, said Catholic Charities' local volunteers remain active, and the center is hiring extra staff to help deal with overflow needs, as well as monitor the health of guests.

“We are taking temperature checks and asking screening questions of all people,” Gwanjaye said of how the center is dealing with health concerns.

If someone is found with a possible illness, they are isolated and an ambulance is called.

“This is a time when the homeless folks need us the most,” Gwanjaye said, noting the center is accepting donations of hand sanitizer, canned food and other supplies.

Warming Center numbers will likely increase during the weekend, since the Dorothy Day Hospitality House shut its doors.

Charlie Kirby, a Dorothy Day board member, said it was a difficult decision, but the board saw no way to comply with social distancing recommendations in the 23-bed house. 

Thursday night, the house had 14 guests before closing its doors for what is expected to be at least a month.

The Dorothy Day House board has encouraged volunteers to consider pitching in at the warming center, and Kirby said the situation will be reviewed on a regular basis


The coronavirus also is impacting how other groups are helping people.

Family Promise Rochester, which typically houses up to four families in area churches, was already working under an eight-week blackout period, due to a lack of available space. As a result, the organization have three families living temporarily in its day center on Seventh Street Northwest.

Brigitte Bednar, the program’s executive director, said staff is primarily working from home, and the families have been instructed to isolate as much as possible to prevent the potential spread of illness.

Volunteers have been banned from entering the center, but they are delivering meals, cleaning supplies and medications to the house’s back door without personal contact.

She said Family Promise planned to return to using local churches to house families on April 19, but the schedule will depend on the pandemic threat.

“We’re just taking that week by week,” she said, adding that the program could keep families at the day center.

The Salvation Army is also striving to limit contact.

While the community center remains open, with options for showering and other services, Rebecca Snapp, the organization’s director of community engagement, said staff is discouraging loitering as a way to maintain social distancing recommendations by public health officials.

Additionally, the Salvation Army’s daily lunch program is “to-go” only, with meals provided in carry-out containers to avoid congregate dining.

Social services appointments are being handled by phone or email when possible, and required in-person appointments will include safe social distancing.

The Salvation Army Rochester Church and Worship Center has suspended its church programming, and the Good Samaritan Medical Clinic is closed.

The organization’s emergency dental clinic remains in operation, and the pharmacy is providing important refills and medications. Appointments are required for services by calling 507-529-4100.

Jacob said many of the community changes still leave people facing homelessness without simple resources, which could cause other problems in the long run.

He said at least one restaurant has closed its bathrooms to customers as part of the take-out only mandates.

“I don’t go into a business unless I’m buying something,” he said, but added that the purchase sometimes comes with the hope of using the restroom.

When that’s not allowed, he said some people could turn to illegal and unsanitary options, especially with park restrooms closed.

“We basically have our legal options taken away,” he said.

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