Mayor seeks funding for homeless shelter
After a late winter in the spotlight, the issue of homelessness in Rochester is still at the forefront of the public consciousness. Work continues at the ground level, but a recent request for funds by Mayor Kim Norton signals the seriousness with which it is being considered at City Hall.
“I have two requests surrounding this on the budget for next year that I put together for initiatives,” Norton told us Wednesday afternoon.
One request would go toward the renovation and operating costs of a new shelter, either at the Silver Lake Fire Station or elsewhere. The other is a request for funds to hire a consultant who would help guide the community on how to move people from homelessness to a state of greater stability.
“The mayor hasn’t necessarily done that sort of thing [make formal budget requests] before, so we’re going to try,” she said.
Earlier this spring, Norton used the more traditional powers of the mayor’s office, the bully pulpit, to convene a pair of town-hall style meetings on homelessness. A number of volunteer groups have formed since those meetings, each addressing a different aspect of homelessness.
One group, for instance, is interviewing homeless individuals and telling their stories. Another group is focused on food distribution, which becomes difficult in the warmer months as those experiencing homelessness head to the woods to camp.
Meetings between the city, the county, downtown businesses, the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce, Catholic Charities, and the Mayo Clinic have also been taking place. This coalition is focused on having a shelter ready by winter. Though, in Norton’s eyes, shelter is necessary outside winter months, too. People experiencing homelessness seek shelter in the skyways during any inclement weather, whether rain, snow, or brutal winds. Whether that shelter will operate from November to April or throughout the year is still under discussion.
One potential location for the shelter is the Silver Lake Fire Station. Facilities-wise, it has many of the needs of a shelter, and its proximity to Cronin Home, bus transportation, and downtown make it a viable choice geographically. The group is trying to determine how much it would cost to bring that building up to code as a shelter, according to Norton.
Meanwhile, individuals like Dan Fifield of The Landing, are addressing the problem at the street level, individual by individual.
“We believe that the homeless population needs people that will walk side by side with them to help them find the resources that they need to transition from the streets to a better living situation,” said Fifield
Other agencies do individual outreach of this kind, too (the county and Zumbro Valley Mental Health, for example). The Landing is willing to take things a step further; Fifield has gone to probation meetings, court hearings, and doctor appointments.
In the last five weeks, he said, The Landing has been able to help two men off the streets. One was a minor assist with some financial aid so he could make a deposit. The other one was a larger collaboration with the county to help a man who’d been homeless for two years get into a place. He’d been in the streets and skyways dealing with medical issues. They walked with him to doctors appointments and made sure things were taken care of.
The Landing’s goal is to start a day center where those experiencing homelessness can connect with services. They’ve identified a downtown location and are fundraising toward that goal, but the cost of property downtown is prohibitively expensive, and fundraising in Rochester, with its wealth of nonprofit entities, is a challenge. Estimated costs to open and run the center are around $6,000 to $7,000 per month.
“This isn’t a city or county problem; it’s everybody’s problem,” said Fifield.
Norton sees things similarly. And her budget requests underscore that belief of a shared responsibility.
“Some might say, well this is a county issue,” said Norton. “This is really a partnership issue. We can’t just hand this off to the county.”
After all, the issue affects Rochester’s economy, image, and humanity.
“I had the opportunity to walk downtown on Memorial Day. I thought a store was open that wasn’t, so I was here kind of accidentally. But there were three individuals sleeping in the hall. It reeked of urine. All over in the hallways, as well as the stairwells,” said Norton. “We are a destination for people staying to get healthcare and this is not the kind of environment that they’re going to expect to see; nor should we really be offering.”
One of the people featured in a recent brochure disseminated by The Landing was a Mayo patient. “She was homeless while she was here because she couldn’t afford to stay anywhere,” said Fifield. “So, she was sleeping in the skyway with her pink suitcases stacked up in a wheelchair.”
Added Fifield, “The biggest complaint you’ll hear from a majority of homeless people is, ‘We’re just ignored. Nobody makes eye contact with us. Nobody is nice to us.’ They’re human beings, they’re just like any of us.”
Bryan Lund covers politics and culture for Med City Beat.