With temperatures in the 70s, discussion of the year’s coldest months is heating up.
“It’s summer. I’m getting a little nervous already,” Olmsted County Housing Director Dave Dunn said of emerging options for a warming center in the winter.
With increased use last year, the Salvation Army has determined it does not have the space needed to operate a nightly warming center, but it intends to continue offering an emergency shelter. Still, many in the community have been pushing for an option that goes beyond providing shelter on the coldest nights.
To compare options, Olmsted County Deputy Administrator Paul Fleissner the county will be seeking proposals for potential operations.
“We’re not sure what kind of warming center we want, whether it’s the coldest weather or five months, but we want to understand who’s out there willing to do the work,” he said.
City and county staff have been talking with Catholic Charities, which operates a warming center in Winona, but no details have solidified.
“We are very interested in providing services,” said Bob Tereba, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southeastern Minnesota, echoing an offer he made during a discussion held by Rochester Mayor Kim Norton in February.
Tereba said he believes the best option is a five-month warming center to ensure shelter throughout the coldest months of the year.
“A warming center is a baseline service that keeps people from getting severely ill or even dying,” he said.
Preliminary estimates show operating a warming center for five months of the year would cost $200,000 to $250,000, exceeding the $52,000 that was spent on operations to keep the Salvation Army center open 42 days last winter.
Last month, as Olmsted County commissioners met as the county’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, they voiced split opinions on how to move forward. While all supported an emergency operation, some worried a larger effort could overwhelm.
While 25 to 30 people were counted nightly at the warming center or in nearby skyways from November to February, the numbers rose to 50 to 60 in March when the warming center was open nightly.
Dunn said the nightly option likely attracted people from other areas of the community who knew they had a place to turn at night.
Commissioner Mark Thein said he’s worried potential numbers will rise with a new option.
“If we are going to build a solution and it increases demand, we will never have a solution,” he said.
While 150 different people were seen at the warming center last winter, Trent Fluegel, the county’s housing resource coordinator, said 79 spent less than four nights at the Salvation Army. Only 26 individuals used the center for warmth on 20 or more nights.
County Board Chairman Jim Bier asked for a more-defined goal before expanding operations, citing the potential for “mission creep” in addressing homelessness and housing concerns.
“More people are going to come here, that’s the way it works,” he said.
Fleissner said county staff plans to request proposals for operating both ane emergency warming center, as well as a five-month center.
The options will likely be presented during the Aug. 20 Housing and Redevelopment Authority board meeting.
In the meantime, Dunn said efforts continue to determine where the center could be located.
The city is researching the possibility of using Silver Lake Station, the former fire station, as a warming center, but renovations would be required.
Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish said part of that work could be done with Community Development Block Grants, and Norton said she’s requested including the ongoing effort in next year’s city budget.
“I can be turned down, but I think the city council takes this very seriously,” she said.
While the county’s request for proposals won’t indicate a specific site for operations, Dunn said the Silver Lake Station is seen as the most likely option at this point.
“I think right now that’s our Plan A. If, for whatever reason,” he said. “If Plan A falls through, then we’re going to try to figure out Plan B.”
As the work moves forward, the city, county and private businesses are mulling the possibility of hiring a consultant to take a longer view.
“We don’t have a sense of the scope of the problem,” Commission Sheila Kiscaden said, noting many factors come into play when homelessness is discussed, including local salaries, available housing, mental health services and family needs.
“It feels to me that when I’m in those conversations, it just swirls,” she said, noting an outside perspective could provide focus.
The proposal estimated the cost of consultant services as $40,000, with the city and county paying a third and the remainder being split by Mayo Clinic and the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce.
Parrish said the Rochester City Council is slated to discuss the funding at its July 8 meeting. County commissioners have been split on the option.
“We’ve done enough studies,” Commissioner Matt Flynn said at a recent meeting. “Are we going to help people or just do more studying?”
Dunn said the complicated nature of the issue will require a communitywide response, which a consultant can help focus.
Norton agreed. “The consultant will help us with a whole array of services,” she said.