Future of day center for people facing homelessness is in question

Randy Petersen, Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.
·4 min read

Feb. 22—A decision on whether to continue operating a day center for people facing homelessness out of Rochester's Silver Lake Station is looming.

The city has an agreement with The Landing MN to operate the facility through May 15, and Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish said the city must let the nonprofit agency know if the work will continue.

"Probably during the next council meeting or so, we'll need some direction, I think," he told the Rochester City Council during a Monday study session to address housing issues.

The city's day center operation started about 11 months ago, with city staff operating the facility out of Mayo Civic Center to give peoplefacing homelessness a place to be amid concerns about the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

The city later moved the operation to Salvation Army property and then hired The Landing to operate out of Silver Lake Station.

Parrish said operations have cost approximately $44,000 a month, with funding primarily coming from state funds earmarked for emergency operations.

"We would need to step in when other support is not available," he told the council.

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton urged patience in making a decision, pointing to lobbying efforts to secure added state funding and ongoing discussions about federal funding.

"There are some outside activities that we are working on," she said.

At least one council member voiced a desire to avoid continued use of the property that sits in his ward.

"That was supposed to end in April," council member Shaun Palmer said of using the Silver Lake site. "That was a commitment that we made. I don't know why we would want to continue on that."

Rochester Public Library Director Audrey Betcher, who also serves as the city's health and human services chairwoman for emergency operations, said the day center has shown positive results, pointing to a 31.9 percent decrease in police calls related to people facing homelessness.

Additionally, she said 144 people have been connected with housing through Olmsted County and other services since the day center opened.

Olmsted County Housing Director Dave Dunn has credited much of that effort to the day center's ability to provide a place for county staff to connect with people needing housing.

"In order to tell a person we have a housing option for them, we have to find that person," he said, adding that the day center was visited by 156 different people seeking support, so far this month.

With that in mind, city and county staff have suggested transitioning the day center into a service center, but related expenses have some elected officials pointing to limits based on differing city and county perspectives.

During an Olmsted County commissioner retreat Friday, the seven elected board members said the county could fund a social worker for the efforts, but would stop short of paying for a facility that provided other activities as a place for people to stay during the day.

"Our mandate is to provide housing for people, and that's what we work on," County Board Chairwoman Stephanie Podulke told the city council Monday.

On Friday, commissioners said they see the city's desire to provide a day center as a response to business and public safety concerns related to people gathering in skyways or other public areas.

"I think they have way different goals for the homeless than we do," commissioner Jim Bier said, pointing to the divide between a temporary relocation and the goal of providing more permanent housing options.

He said the county's effort to provide a nightly warming center addresses emergency needs that a daytime operation does not.

Parrish said he doesn't see the efforts divided as clearly.

"This is fundamentally a health and human services function," he said of the daytime operation.

He said the council could use tax revenue or a portion of annual federal grant funds to either provide space or help fund operations on a future service center.

Norton encouraged the council to look beyond individual roles to find options for collaboration similar to efforts that created the mix of day and night services in response to the pandemic.

"This is an issue for the entire community," she said.

On Friday, county commissioners were mixed during a discussion of future joint efforts, with some pointing toward a chance to pool resources and others concerned city officials will bring mandates to the conversation.

Norton said the discussion is needed to avoid losing progress made in recent months.

"To pretend this isn't something we have to deal with will move us backward," she said.