Homeless camps decline in Rochester following city ban

There’s still a lot of summer left to go, but Rochester police report fewer homeless camps in the first few months since a ban on encampments in parks and other public places took effect in March. The Rochester City Council passed the ordinance after the deaths of three individuals in homeless encampments in some of the city’s most popular parks last year. Police officers broke up more than 100 camps, while city park staff routinely cleared up dirty needles, feces and debris.

A violation of the ordinance constitutes a misdemeanor with up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail, but only after a warning and as a last resort. Officers’ primary objective is to point homeless individuals and families to shelters and social service agencies for help, according to the Post Bulletin.

“We are still trying to make sure we have someplace to send somebody before we take any type of enforcement action,” Capt. Jeff Stilwell of Rochester Police Department’s Community Services Division told the city’s Police Policy Oversight Commission on Tuesday. “We have been pretty successful with that and gotten voluntary compliance to our request for people to move out of public spaces or not create large encampments.”

The camping ban came after the city staff reportedly spent more than 7,481 hours last year in connection to encampment enforcement.

Stilwell said fewer than a dozen warnings have been issued since March, and no citations or arrests have been made under the new restrictions.

At the same time, the number of shelter beds for homeless individuals in Rochester continues to increase. City and Olmsted County officials have worked together with charitable organizations to increase funding for shelters and assistance programs to get vulnerable individuals off the streets.

He said some people who were camping because they didn’t want to stay at the Rochester Community Warming Center, 200 Fourth St. SE, have discovered they are more comfortable at the less-crowded Salvation Army site.

The warming center can provide 45 beds nightly, and the overflow shelter has space for up to 25 people.

The Rochester City Council approved funding up to $50,000 from its contingency funds to keep the overflow site operating, with the expectation that other community efforts would support the estimated $314,000 needed for Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota operation of the site through the end of 2025.

It’s still early with several months of warm weather ahead. The problem of homelessness and encampments remains a challenging issue for cities everywhere. An impending U.S. Supreme Court decision on how far local governments can go to control homeless camps could lead to more changes. But for now, Rochester appears to be headed in the right direction, effectively containing homeless camps, while pointing those in need of help in the right direction.