Olmsted County and Rochester officials met Tuesday afternoon to compare notes regarding homelessness with Tim Marx, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The discussion came two months after Marx, a Rochester native who graduated from Lourdes High School, presented his thoughts about addressing homelessness during a forum organized by Rochester Mayor Kim Norton.
Marx, who was in town to attend the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless’ two-day annual conference at Mayo Civic Center, said it’s important for city and county officials to meet to discuss the topic.
He also noted homelessness in the community provides a variety of challenges, which frequently leads elected officials to look at the issue in different ways.
“The county will look at it from the perspective of social services, corrections, transportation and those things you do,” he said. “The city will look at it from economic vitality, being a safe, clean and affordable city, and the challenges you are experiencing in the skyways.”
To merge the differing views, Marx said it’s important to develop a common agenda with defined goals.
At the same time, he said, private partnerships will be needed for additional support and innovation.
Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said many of those partnerships have been challenging to forge, especially in the business community. He said the county and others have found it difficult to convince community members that a housing crisis exists for the county’s lowest-income residents.
“Somehow the perception is not there,” he said.
County Board Chairman Jim Bier said he worries perception will be an issue after a new warming center is established this winter, offering homeless residents a place to stay nightly through the end of March.
“When the homeless showed up in the skyways, it became a crisis,” he said. “If they are gone this winter, by and large, it’s my opinion that it will be considered ‘problem solved.’”
Marx acknowledged that visibility of the issue helps create public will to solve it, but he said the officials must work to find other ways to make sure people remain aware of the issue.
“It just takes a longer-term view to try to find small victories along the way,” he said.
Rochester City Council President Randy Staver said he anticipates victories will come with the warming center effort, which is expected to be housed in the county-owned strip mall at 200 Fourth St. SE.
“I think we will get some experience from that,” he said, noting it will likely point toward ways to address underlying issues that lead to local homelessness.
Additionally, he said, the work will offer the opportunity to forge new partnerships, which will be needed.
Already, the city and county are joining forces with Mayo Clinic and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce to fund the creation of the warming center.
“I don’t think we — the elected — are going to solve this on our own,” he said.
Marx agreed and suggested the city and county consider creating an official task force with public and private partners to address shared concerns for the long term.
The entities funding the warming center have already started taking some steps to collaborate on a long-term goal by hiring the Corporation for Supportive Housing to help adopt a plan to address homelessness in the community.
Marx said such work is headed in the right direction.
“You are talking about all the right issues, you are gathering the right people together,” he said.