Mankato to crack down on growing homeless problem downtown

Vagrants sleeping in skyways and parking ramps, discarded drug paraphernalia on sidewalks, impromptu campsites in public areas. It’s become an all too familiar scenario, increasingly even in cities outside the metro area. The outcry over the impact of individuals roaming the streets and public places has finally reached a tipping point in Mankato, where the Free Press says authorities plan to implement stricter enforcement measures.

A new ordinance passed by the Mankato City Council aims to better control the misuse of downtown corridors, skyways, parking ramps and a bus shelter by homeless people.

“Over the last year-plus, we’ve seen a growing number of issues that have arisen,” City Manager Susan Arntz told the council Monday night.

People have been sleeping in public indoor walkways, parking ramps and other spaces in the city center, storing possessions, leaving behind human waste and camping — even cooking — in the Cherry Street bus shelter. Arntz said city staff have been talking for much of this year about possible solutions, reaching out to the city’s homeless population about available assistance and talking to them about the coming crackdown in what is tolerated.

For starters, the city will begin restricting access to the skyways, cutting the hours back to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., except for special events downtown. Authorities plan to get out the word that anti-social behavior will result in a misdemeanor citation and not be tolerated, while also informing individuals about local homeless shelters and other options.

The ordinance, passed unanimously, was crafted as a middle-ground approach after examining what other cities have done to address similar issues, according to Arntz.

“Some have codes that are a little more intense than what you’re seeing here. Some are more basic.”

Governing public enclosed spaces such as parking ramps, bus shelters, skyways, stairwells, elevators and corridors such as those in the civic center and Mankato Place, the ordinance prohibits lying down, engaging in disorderly conduct, loudly playing an electronic device, bringing in animals or shopping carts, littering, consuming alcohol or other drugs, urinating or defecating, obstructing the free passage of others and more.

At the same time, city councilors voted to join forces with a consortium to begin work on a new homeless shelter downtown. Yet Mankato has clearly drawn a line on a growing threat to public safety and civic life in response to the concerns of citizens who live and work there.

Council member Michael McLaughlin, who worked with homeless veterans earlier in his career and has visited homeless encampments with the Public Safety Department’s outreach officer, said he’s witnessed that solution-based approach as the officer directed people to resources. At the same time, McLaughlin said families should be able to go downtown to a restaurant without seeing human waste in the parking ramp stairwells, something that he and one of his children encountered when going to a movie at the Mankato Place movie theater.

“No one wants to see that,” he said.