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Rochester moves to restrict overnight skyway access; stops short of creating 'sit-lie' policy

Rochester moves to restrict overnight skyway access; stops short of creating 'sit-lie' policy

Rochester will limit the hours of the downtown skyways as part of an attempt to curb overnight camping in the above-street tunnels.

The city council voted Monday night to close the skyways to the public during the hours of midnight to 5:30 a.m. The measure was adopted amid concerns from law enforcement and downtown businesses about the growing presence of people taking up shelter in the skyways.

“Overall, I think adding an hours of operation seems like a pretty reasonable first measure,” said Council Member Nick Campion.

Establishing daily hours of operation was one of two recommendations presented to the council on Monday. The other, a so-called ‘sit-lie’ provision, was defeated by a 4-3 vote. That amendment would have made it punishable by law to sit or lie down on the floors, stairs or railings. (There would have been some exceptions, such as a medical emergency.)

Council Member Patrick Keane, who supported limiting the council action to focus on hours of operation, said he would like to see the city take an incremental approach to the issue. He suggested the council could revisit the topic again in 2020 to evaluate whether more needs to be done.

“[Changing the hours] would be the softer approach for the city to go about this — to not having unintended consequences while still being responsive to the health and hygiene and the problems in our skyway,” said Keane.

Council Member Michael Wojcik said while he was comfortable with adopting skyway hours, given that they would be universally enforced, he had concerns about targeting specific types of behavior.

“I see the additional language as … the definition of criminalizing some behavior commonly exhibited by the homeless,” said Wojcik.

Mayor Kim Norton pushed back against Wojcik’s comments, stating that the ‘sit-lie’ proposal was not about penalizing anyone for being homeless.

“These individuals live in our community that we are talking about here, whether they be homeless or ill, and they should be able to sit in a chair just like anyone else,” said Norton. “But they shouldn’t be lying on the ground with every belonging they have, and washing laundry and hanging it on the railings. That’s what become normalized in our community.”

Norton noted that the community has taken steps recently to address the need for temporary shelter. As we have reported here, the city is working with Olmsted County and Catholic Charities to create an overnight warming shelter, to be located adjacent to the Government Center.

That facility, which will include 30 beds, is scheduled to open later this year.

However, speaking to the council, Police Chief Jim Franlin said without a ‘sit-lie’ policy on the books, his officers will not have as many opportunities to engage people who may need help accessing the facility.

That sentiment was shared by both Council Member Shaun Palmer and Council President Randy Staver. They said the policy proposal was not about criminalizing homelessness, but about creating opportunities for law enforcement to interact with individuals to get them the help they need.

“I don’t see a problem with the sit-and-lie ordinance,” said Palmer, who along with Staver and Council Member Mark Bilderback, opposed the initial amendment that left out the ‘sit-lie’ policy. (They later joined their colleagues in adopting the new hours.) “I think it makes sense that our public walkways are open for people to walk, and sitting there and lying there isn’t what they are designed to do. It’s not compassionate to have people sitting and lying during the day, or sleeping in the skyways. If you are talking about compassion, there other ways of handling this.”

Under the measure approved Monday, enforcement of the skyway hours will not begin until the warming shelter is up and running.

Of note: While the skyways will effectively be closed overnight, there will be an exception for pedestrians needing to access a hotel or parking ramp.

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

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