Rochester leaders approve the first reading of a ban on camping in parks and public spaces

Encampment ban discussion in Rochester

Encampment ban discussion in Rochester

Rochester city leaders aren’t mincing words as they try to solve a growing issue.

“Last year, we cleared over one-hundred-thirty encampments,” says Captain Jeff Stilwell, a Rochester Police Department spokesperson. “(They) were either deemed restricting access to areas where the public was using, or dangerous because of drug or criminal activity.”

The city council is trying something different — passing Monday, the first reading of an ordinance that would ban camping in public spaces.

But there would be caveats.

People living in a park, for example, would be given 48 hours’ notice before an encampment would be cleared.

“They have to be warned first,” Stilwell says. “They have to be given a list of services that we’ve been providing regularly for the last two years — and, they have to have a place to go before we remove them. For those that won’t leave the area willingly, it’ll allow us to write them a ticket.”

Violators could face up to ninety days in jail and $1000 in fines.

Stilwell says strict enforcement is the last resort — the goal, he says, is to educate people about available services, encourage people to get them, and get on a housing list.

He says officers won’t be making initial contact with those experiencing homelessness.

Instead — the plan calls for a ‘Community Action Team’ — social workers, peer counselors, and recovery specialists — to connect people with services.

But staffers with Family Promise Rochester — which works with people experiencing homelessness — say they’re concerned.  

Erin Sinnwell, the group’s Executive Director, believes the new ordinance could lead to a revolving door for some.

“You’re camping outside and how is this process going to work?” she says. “You’re arrested and you go to jail for a night. You get a bed and a meal, and you’re put back on the street.”

Stilwell says if there are no shelter beds available, people will not be taken into custody during the overnight hours, from 8 p.m. until 8 a.m.

Meanwhile, ACLU Minnesota says it’s watching the process closely.

The group says cities should make finding permanent housing for those in need — not short-term shelters — a priority.

“Punishing them is not going to help,” says Teresa Nelson, the chapter’s Legal Director. “You’re just adding more problems to a person’s life. Take a housing-first approach. Get people housed, and then work on other issues that led to them being unhoused.”    

The action on Monday is only the first reading — a final vote is expected in early March.

Stilwell says if the ordinance is approved, there will be a month to a month-and-a-half education period, so the community will understand how it works.

“We have the Community Action Team that’s been working and building relationships in the community for two years,” he says. “We’re trying to have and maintain a delicate balance. We’re getting a lot of complaints from residents that want to use the park or go there with kids; about safety concerns about drug use, hypodermic needles, and those things.”