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Is Silver Lake Park the right site for a warming shelter?

Is Silver Lake Park the right site for a warming shelter?

On Tuesday, the Rochester Park Board approved the use of the Silver Lake fire station as a winter warming shelter. The vote followed a recent Rochester City Council decision to spend approximately $457,000 on updating the building with new bathrooms and an HVAC system.

The Silver Lake site is one of several being considered by local government to serve as an emergency shelter from November through March. We learned this week that the City of Rochester and Olmsted County are also exploring the possibility of using two other properties.

As of this writing, there are still quite a few moving parts to all of this — but I will do my best now to share what is inside my notebook.

Other options being considered

Even with authorization to use the fire station, local officials have continued to investigate the viability of several other properties.

County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden told Med City Beat Tuesday that the search has been narrowed down to two county-owned sites.

Kiscaden said it would be premature to name the properties publicly until they have been properly vetted. Both sites, she noted, would require some level of renovations to bring the buildings up to code.

“I think we need to keep multiple things in play,” said Kiscaden.

While much is still unknown about the county buildings, Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said both sites are “looking quite possible.”

Still, prior to its vote, the mayor warned the park board not to delay a decision on the Silver Lake site, just in case other options do not pan out. The mayor noted there is already a “tight timeline to have something ready for winter.”

Neighbors raise concerns

Several neighbors showed up to Tuesday’s park board meeting to share their concerns about using park space as temporary shelter for the homeless.

Robert Mark, who lives in the neighborhood, said he was worried about how the shelter could impact the atmosphere of the park.

“My kids play in that park. My wife walks the dog through it,” said Mark, adding, “I don’t want them tripping over glass bottles.”

Neighbors who attended the park board meeting also raised concerns about concentrating the homeless population near a playground. There were also fears that the site could eventually be designated as a permanent shelter.

Under the current plan, the site would only be used during weather emergencies — and would not be run as an around-the-clock shelter. There would also be a review by the city council after one season of operation.

Dan Fifield, founder of The Landing, a nonprofit created to serve the homeless population, pushed back against comments suggesting the Silver Lake shelter would change the complexion of the neighborhood.

“What we’re trying to do is get them in a safe environment where they can have a chance to thrive,” said Fifield.

Only one board member, Richard Dale, voted against the warming center plan. He said there should have been more opportunity for public input.

“I just think we are ahead of the gun at this point,” said Dale.

Kaia Yngve voted in favor of the recommendation. She said the proposal aligns with the department’s priorities for promoting healthy lifestyles.

“While unconventional for a park board to be working [on an emergency shelter], I think it’s a space where we can lead and use it as a way to really emphasize how inclusive our community is,” said Yngve.

Upgrades could support other programming

City officials have continued to point out that any renovations to the old fire station, built in 1954, could support other uses of the building.

Parks director Paul Widman said that because of offsetting demands — the site would only be used as a warming shelter during the winter months — the building would still be available for summer and spring activities.

A number of groups, including an adaptive summer camp, use the station already. Those groups, Widman said, would also benefit from upgrades to the building, such as the addition of bathrooms and showers.

Widman also responded to questions about whether the issue falls outside of the jurisdiction of the parks department. He said homelessness has always been an issue affecting the park system.

“We feel, yes, it might be mission creep in one sense,” said Widman. “But in the other, it’s better to have a programmed site rather than having to respond to areas … that have no programming or oversight.”

Who will operate the shelter?

Despite the city’s support for renovating the station, it has expressed hesitancy toward managing the operations of the warming shelter.

Officials from both the city and county, though, have been in contact with potential partners better equipped to take on the responsibilities.

On Tuesday, Mayor Norton said one of those entities, Catholic Charities, has indicated a willingness to operate the shelter this winter. While there would still need to be an RFP process, the mayor said that Catholic Charities has been in town looking at properties and plans to put together a proposal.

It remains unclear how much it would cost to operate an emergency facility. Kiscaden said the county has contributed to the Salvation Army shelter in the past and would expect to contribute again to a warming center. The shelter, she said, would also seek support from the business community.

What’s next?

Whichever site is selected, work will need to begin quickly in order to have the site ready by the time the cold hits.

If it winds up being the Silver Lake site, the city council has agreed to revisit the issue in the spring to review how the site held up during its first season.

Meantime, the city has already begun discussing ways to address an increase in homeless individuals using the skyway system as shelter. Some members of the council, however, have suggested that a skyway ordinance only be considered once a warming shelter becomes available.

Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.

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