Rochester clamps down on homeless encampments in parks

It’s often only a matter of time before big-city problems like the homeless encampments now commonplace in the metro area spread to regional cities like Rochester. The uptick in encampments in Rochester parks that authorities responded to last year has not let up. The proliferation of the illegal campsites has kept park and police personnel on the move more than ever this summer, according to the Post Bulletin.

Approximately 20 camps have been removed from Rochester city parks this year, but others continue to pop up — sometimes in a location cleared days earlier.

“Even though we are stepping things up, there is going to be a lot of moving from site to site,” Rochester Parks and Recreation Director Paul Widman said. “We will be chasing some of these folks around. It’s not an ideal situation.”

The increase in makeshift tent cities has prompted a change in policy. In past years, county housing officials explored the availability of beds in shelters before parks staff provided the occupants 48-hours notice of their impending eviction. But this year the process has been streamlined to allow faster processing and clearing of individuals and encampments.

Widman said the 48-hour notice now occurs alongside efforts to help secure housing options.

“We start the clock at the first sighting,” he said, adding it typically takes a day after the 48-hour notice expires to remove a camp.

Mike Schraber, the city’s parks operation manager, said the camps cleared from parks this year have each housed one to six people.

“I think it’s double of what we’ve had in the past,” he said of the 20 or so camps, adding the items left behind can range from nearly nothing to needing multiple dumpsters.

Some suggest selecting a central location in one park for the increasing number of individuals living outdoors in encampments. But that option raises all sorts of additional issues for the authorities.

[Co-founder of The Landing shelter Dan] Fifield said he’s proposed the idea of a designated campsite in the past and even knows of a group that would step in to maintain the area. He said it would address many existing concerns that aren’t likely to go away.

“There are those individuals that are always going to camp regardless of what happens, and it’s a lot easier to try to manage it than it is to run them all over town from one spot to another,” he said.

Widman said finding the right site would also be a challenge.

“Some of the criticism of that concept is that it’s centralizing the issue,” he said. “People don’t like to have trails in their yard; they definitely would not want an organized encampment.”

The seriousness of the issue was underscored this week by the discovery of a body by city workers in the process of removing an encampment in Cook Park just hours before a scheduled outdoor concert. KAAL-TV says Rochester police are investigating the death.

RPD said a park staff member discovered a body while cleaning up a homeless encampment at the park, located at 722 7th St. NW in Rochester, shortly after 9:00 a.m.

RPD is working with the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office to identify the person and determine the cause and manner of death. This is an ongoing investigation.

The Rochester City Council plans to further discuss the growing incidence of homeless encampments at a meeting next Monday.