Gail Greenwood says homeless numbers in Rochester are growing.
“Every weekend there are a bunch of new faces who are homeless,” the local volunteer and advocate said of stops at weekly Sunday lunches served at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 1114 Third St.SE.
The increase is supported by a three-day survey recently conducted by Olmsted County and local nonprofits agencies.
“We assumed we would have between 50 and 60 folks,” said Trent Fluegel, Olmsted County’s housing resource coordinator.
In the end, 106 unsheltered residents were contacted, and another 17 were identified but didn’t take part in the survey.
“The largest number ever counted before in Rochester was in the 60s,” Fluegel said, pointing to annual counts conducted each January. In 2018, they counted 66.
The special survey was held as the county, along with the city of Rochester and other organizations, works with consultants from the Corporation for Supportive Housing to develop a long-term strategy for addressing homelessness.
Greenwood, who volunteers with The Landing MN and has helped at the Salvation Army warming center in the past, said she’s a bit surprised that the number of people surveyed was so low, but noted many homeless residents tend to remain out of sight.
“They don’t want to be found, because then they are judged,” she said.
Fluegel said the survey centered on individuals living in non-traditional or short-term spaces, such as those sleeping in cars, under bridges and in Dorothy Day House.
“One person was living in a dog house,” he said.
When other numbers were included in January’s count, 452 people were found, including 166 children younger than 18.
While he said the numbers might be shocking, Fluegel said the information generated by the survey is crucial to future planning.
“What we learned by doing that survey is about the system we have in place and where the gaps are in that system,” he said, noting on one night of the count 23 beds were available in Rochester, including nine at Dorothy Day House.
Since the survey, he said 16 of the 106 counted have been housed, along with several other people who were not contacted during the survey.
He also said approximately 30 people found on the street had previously been housed but lost their shelter for various reasons.
“The last contact someone had with them was when they were housed,” he said.
Identifying such gaps in the seven-step process between identifying someone as homeless and getting them in housing is crucial, he added.
“We need to find better ways to communicate with each other,” he said. “If we need a navigator to help our professionals get through the process, it’s no wonder that the folks without shelter are having a difficult time.”
He said the next steps will be identifying areas for improvement and working with consultants who will be returning to compare survey findings in the upcoming weeks.
“There’s enough richness (to the data) that they needed more time with it,” Fluegel said.
When it comes to looking at who is homeless in Rochester, Fluegel and Greenwood said many residents would be surprised to discover more than half — 52 percent — have lived in Rochester for 10 years or more.
Only 14 percent of the people surveyed had been in Rochester for less than a year, something Fluegel said counerdicts the belief that the community is attracting a homeless population.
Greenwood said many of the new arrivals she’s talked to are actually former area residents who hit hard times elsewhere and returned to Southeast Minnesota.
“They thought they’d come back to where they grew up,” she said. “Then they realize it's harder now to get anything — jobs, housing, anything.”
Fluegel said he plans to take a closer look at the data related to people coming to Rochester and their length of homelessness.
“I’m guessing we had very few people who had long-term homelessness and then come to Rochester,” he said. “They either come here expecting to move into an apartment and find the market is different than they expected or something happens after they get here.”
Mayor Kim Norton said she’s heard similar stories in the past year as she’s worked with many homeless residents in the community. Additionally, she said she’s noticed many local residents have become homeless for a variety of reasons, from mental health and addiction issues to economic hardship.
Fluegel said each case tends to be different, which points to a wide range of solutions.
“We have 123 individuals, and the solutions to their problems are 123 different things,” he said, referring to the overall number of people identified as homeless in the recent count.