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Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

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Rochester explores ways to alleviate homelessness

Rochester explores ways to alleviate homelessness

In an effort to address rising demand for services, Rochester Mayor Kim Norton assembled a coalition of community providers Wednesday night to discuss ways to better care for the city’s homeless population.

One by one, representatives of local organizations that work with the homeless stood up to share experiences and offer input for improving upon current support systems. Many, if not all, said the need for services has outstripped their capacities. That means at the Dorothy Day Hospitality House, a shelter located a few blocks west of downtown, volunteers are sometimes left turning people away.

“We have 23 beds and unfortunately, people draw cards,” Ryan, a volunteer with the shelter, told the group gathered at the Mayo Civic Center. “It’s just heartbreaking to know that we can’t accommodate everybody.”

A common theme echoed by those in attendance was the need for a more permanent winter warming center. By one estimate, there are upwards of 400-500 people currently experiencing homelessness in Rochester.

“There has to be an emergency shelter for families. We know we can’t be it, but our waiting list is exorbitant,” said Dawn Devine, executive director of Family Promise Rochester, which has 14 beds on site. “And we get calls all the time — people who are living in their cars with kids.”

The attention to homelessness was brought on by a recent cold snap that tested the city’s ability to respond to the needs of its most vulnerable residents. Prior to even the most extreme conditions, the Salvation Army Warming Center said it had 68 unique individuals staying with them.

“The hardest part of my shift is at 7 in the morning and saying, ‘you got to go. It’s still 40 below, but you gotta go,’” said Kevin Ewing, a volunteer at the warming shelter, which opens any night temperatures drop below zero.

To get a better understanding of the issue, Mayor Norton said she has met with the city’s police chief, along with a number of local individuals experiencing homelessness. As a first step, she suggested creating a central hub that would give providers, along with law enforcement, a way to coordinate what shelters and resources are available.

Already, one person in attendance, community organizer Danielle Teal, has volunteered to lead a collaborative effort to build an online platform that would allow agencies to share when they have availability.

“There are nights when we are not in an emergency, where we have people in the skyways who could be directed somewhere, but we don’t know where there is an opening,” said Norton.

Underscoring the importance of Wednesday night’s task force meeting were stories from two individuals who have experienced homelessness in Rochester. One woman, who did not give her name, told the crowd she had been homeless for about three years until recently being accepted into a shelter. She is now taking college courses and has been offered a job.

All it took, she said, was someone giving her another shot.

“There needs to be housing,” she said. “There needs to be a roof over somebody’s head. Because without that, everything else falls apart.”

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Cover photo: Individual sleeping in the Rochester skyway system / Feb 2019

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