Rochester bans homeless camps in parks and public areas

After months of contentious discussion and at least three deaths in city parks last year, the Rochester City Council voted to prohibit homeless camps on all city property. The ban follows a significant rise in homeless individuals setting up makeshift tent encampments in some of the city’s most popular parks. Dirty needles, feces and debris accompanied the influx, leaving city park department employees and police officers to clear out more than 100 camps in 2023.

“People  are handing out tents to people and it is not humane to hand out tents and tell them to sleep in a park,” council member Shaun Palmer said before the 4-3 vote. “It is not humane to be in a location that does not have  sanitary facilities. Are we trying to criminalize homelessness? No, we are not.”

The measure effectively codifies a resolution on the books since 2012. Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin first proposed the ordinance last summer, as part of a strategy aimed at convincing homeless individuals to seek shelter and other services. Individuals would receive a misdemeanor citation as a last resort.

“If the ordinance is approved, and it turns out that it’s used in a way feared by opponents, I will work to repeal the ordinance,” council member Norman Wahl said. “But I have supreme confidence in our police force and their compassion.”

The city council’s decision comes two weeks after the death of an apparent homeless woman discovered on a sidewalk. The Post Bulletin noted that opponents in attendance sought to further delay the council’s decision.

The Landing MN co-founder Dan Fifield called for more discussion at the start of Monday’s council meeting, asking the council members to delay action, pointing to a planned meeting between the council and Olmsted County commissioners on Wednesday to address homelessness.

“I don’t think this is an appropriate ordinance to pass forward,” said the day center operator. “I think it is going to cause more problems than it’s worth for our folks who are experiencing homelessness.”

Yet even those opposed to the ban acknowledged there’s no simple solution to a problem that seems to be more intractable by the year.

“There is nothing anybody else can do about that,” said council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, who voted against the ordinance. “We’re all our own human beings and we have no control over anybody else. We can’t do it with policy, we can’t do it with enforcement and I’m hoping this system will work.”

Meantime, city and county leaders met this week with social service providers to work on drafting a plan to address homelessness in Olmsted County by the end of summer.