Rochester police urge ban on homeless camps after death in park

Just days after the death of a 61-year-old homeless man in a city park, Rochester’s top cop called for an ordinance banning homeless encampments on all city property at a working session of the Rochester City Council. The growing number of homeless tent camps poses an increasing burden on and safety concerns for parks staff and police, according to Parks and Recreation director Paul Widman’s remarks in the Post Bulletin.

“Clearing an encampment is not easy, and it’s not a pleasant process,” he said, pointing out staff show compassion and understanding while also encouraging people to move.

He said the added workload also can put them in harms way, due to what they find at some camps.

Officials have already tightened up their enforcement efforts in the makeshift camps, giving individuals 48 hours to remove their belongings, while also informing them of available shelters. But the city currently has no ordinance banning camps in parks and other public property on the books, only a resolution.

“We are not trying to criminalize homelessness,” he [Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin] said.

At the same time, he said the message regarding the use of public spaces needs added clarity.

While the city adopted a 2014 resolution banning camping in city parks, Franklin said creating an ordinance with “more teeth” and covering all city property would help.

An ordinance, compared to a resolution, would make unauthorized camping a misdemeanor criminal offense. Currently, the city’s camping ban requires officers to trespass someone — telling them to move — before any legal action is taken.

The discovery of a body while parks staff was clearing an illegal camp last week set the tone for the city council debate.

Council member Shaun Palmer said he’d support taking action and enforcing the current resolution, citing frustration with current approaches, as well as nonprofits that provide camping gear.

“It’s not compassionate to give out a tent and have people die in parks by themselves and sit there for three days dying,” he said, appearing to allude to a Cook Park death that was discovered June 7 by a parks employee.

Yet other city councilors remain reluctant to confront the reality of the increasing number of homeless camps in parks head-on. Instead, some suggest turning over a large area in one park for vagrants and homeless individuals to pitch their tents, while also adding beds in shelters.

“How is our housing situation going to back up the potential change or help that RPD or parks is wanting?” council member Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick said, suggesting that finding a safe place to allow people to camp could be an option.

Before adding restrictions, she suggested the city and county work together to provide an optional camping location, pointing to potential use of the northern section of Graham Park.

Taryn Edens, manager of Rochester’s Housing and Neighborhood Services, pointed toward city and county efforts to find more shelter resources and expand housing options.

No final decisions were made at the council working session. In the meantime, the pressure to find a way to more effectively deal with homeless encampments will only continue to build in Rochester city parks.