Rochester moves toward ban on homeless camps in parks

It’s not in law enforcement officers’ job description, but it’s become part of the beat in Rochester. Police officers have cleared out dirty needles, feces and debris from more than 100 homeless encampments in Rochester city parks and other public places so far this year. They expect to log some 3,500 encounters with homeless individuals, twice as many as the year before.

Worst of all, officers have responded to emergency calls involving four individuals found dead in homeless encampments in Rochester, the latest just last week.

“There’s a human cost here,” Capt. Jeff Stillwell told the Rochester City Council this week. “Our partners weren’t there when the daughter of that 54-year old that died in the snow dump last week wanted answers. An officer of the police department was.”

The explosion of the homeless population and make-shift encampments in public spaces led Police Chief Jim Franklin to ask the Rochester City Council to pass an ordinance prohibiting campsites on municipal land at their latest meeting. The ordinance, a misdemeanor, would codify a resolution banning camping back in 2014.

“The ordinance should consider public safety issues, public health considerations, respectful treatment of all residents, and enforcement prioritization consistent with the risks presented.”

Police representatives emphasized that arresting individuals would be a last resort, undertaken only after explaining and encouraging homeless individuals to take advantage of the shelters and other social service options in the community. But the Post Bulletin says homeless advocates argue the city should expand the availability of shelter beds and other services first, rather than “criminalize homelessness.”

In mid-July, members of the Olmsted County housing stability team counted 174 people facing homelessness without available shelter.

Alex Hurlebaus, The Landing’s director of social services, said the organization’s day center at 426 Third Ave. SE had 3,612 total visits in October, which represented 447 individuals.

“I think it’s important to note that on any given night there were 447 individuals that could have shown up needing shelter, and we are prepared for 72 of them,” he said during a forum held by The Landing on Saturday, Nov. 4.

Yet officers on the front lines say their experience and surveys of the homeless population indicate the majority of residents of encampments outright refuse to check into the available shelters. They believe a line has to be drawn for the safety of the public and homeless individuals.

“We don’t believe it’s just a space issue,” Capt. Stillwell said. “There are people that want absolutely no restrictions on what they can and cannot do in public spaces. Again, 70 percent of people will not go to a shelter, no matter how big we build it.”

But for one community organizer it’s an either or proposition.

“Optimizing our city’s assistance network must be our highest priority,” said Scott Kretchman. “Not arresting and prosecuting people whose only crime is existing in spaces where the city doesn’t want them.”

No final action on the camping ban was taken. But in a split 4-2 vote, city councilors directed the city attorney to draft an ordinance to prohibit camping on city property.