ROCHESTER, Minn. (FOX 47) — A proposal that would make it illegal for people to sit or lie on the ground or on railings and ledges in Rochester skyways fails 4-3 after sparking some controversy.
Rochester city leaders say it’s part of their plan to keep the city clean and safe after an uptick in complaints and concerns.
There’s been a rise in troubling behavior like drug use, aggressive panhandling, and urination in the skyways causing business owners to fear walking back to their cars at night, according to the Rochester Police Dept. Officials say they respond to about 150 calls in the skyways during winter months.
“Almost every day since I’ve been in office, I get calls from visitors, Mayo Clinic patients, convention goers, employees, employers, who are concerned that we are not doing our due diligence as a city in caring humanely for our homeless,” said Mayor Kim Norton.
Critics of the ban say it’s an unfair attack on the homeless.
“I see it as the definition of criminalizing some behavior commonly exhibited by the homeless,” said council member Michael Wojcik. If the proposal passed, violations would be considered a misdemeanor offense and punishable by a fine up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail.
“Tell me how simply the act of laying in the skyway is causing harm to others…what it appears to be doing is making some people feel uncomfortable,” said Wojcik.
Council member Shaun Palmer supported the proposal, adding, “sitting and lying there is not what they’re designed to do. It’s not compassionate sitting and lying during the day in our skyways.”
“This isn’t about penalizing, this is about trying to respond as a community in a reasonable way to make certain that we provide shelter and care and housing for every single person that lives in this community,” said Mayor Norton.
Council member Patrick Keane called for an incremental approach that shows compassion for what he described as “a humanitarian issue.”
“Let’s watch and come back in January to see if we still have troubles and we need to do more than that. I think that would be the softer approach for the city to go about this while not having unintended consequences while still being responsible to the health and hygiene and problems in our skyway,” Keane said.
With what could be yet another brutal winter just around the corner, the City and Olmsted county have partnered to renovate part of a strip mall across from the Government Center as a temporary warming shelter.
The council said it’ll be watching closely to see if the addition of a warming center will help reduce the issues in the skyways and will revisit the ordinance at a later date.
When the warming center opens this winter, skyway doors will be locked from midnight until 5:30 a.m.