The most important moment from the mayoral debate Tuesday came when incumbent mayor Rita Albrecht and challenger Jorge Prince finally got to bring their opinions on Bemidji homelessness into the same room, at the same time.
As Albrecht alluded to during the debate, in Bemidji the mayor doesn’t really have all that much power to respond to specific issues. Since the city manager is the one with direct administrative control over city departments, the mayor only has their voting stake on the City Council to bring to bear, plus a little more power as a symbolic city figurehead to call attention to specific problems. Realistically speaking, the winner of the mayor race will only have slightly more pull on day-to-day operations than the winner of the City Council race between Don Heinonen and Dave Larson.
With that said, one council member’s vote can sometimes mean life or death for a city initiative, and the mayor can do more than any other council member to call the public’s attention to homelessness.
From my point of view, Albrecht’s position was basically this: the city can give money and other resources to nonprofits, but besides that, it can’t do much directly on homelessness except through the Bemidji Police Department.
“The city has a small role to play with human services,” she said. “Our police department, part of their strategic plan is ‘assist the community in figuring out this challenge.’ We want to support our public safety folks.”
One might see that and incorrectly assume she means the way to solve homelessness is to have the police department crack down on vagrants. However, she’s actually quite right in saying that one good way to deal with it is through the BPD, and I wish she had taken the time at the forum to elaborate on what she (probably) really meant.
The Bemidji police interact with homeless people very often, arguably as often as the People’s Church, and it’s not to arrest them. Public safety isn’t my beat, but I do read the police blotters from time to time. The blotter entries tell the story, and I invite you to check them yourselves: the police give the homeless rides and referrals, making sure they’re not out in the cold if cops run across them while on patrol. They put them in contact with shelters, shelters that could never afford to send staffers out into the streets to check on the welfare of the people forced to live there. The police department CAN send people, though.
It is the police who are often the first helping hands the homeless encounter. The men and women of the Bemidji Police Department are their true guardians.
We can do even more as taxpayers and as voters. Our voices can prompt the city to do more, too. The city can use the police to study the nature of homelessness in Bemidji, a more efficient and more real study than any reporter or any statistician could come up with. With the proper funding, the proper mandate, the police administration can provide more specific training and procedural rules for how its officers should deal with each homeless person they encounter. That way, police helping the homeless becomes more of an expectation and less of cops simply taking it upon themselves to do the right thing.
During the debate, Prince outlined an interesting funding mechanism to address homelessness: divert profits from the city’s liquor stores and put it towards partnering with nonprofits. His idea also has some symbolism to it in that alcohol abuse is linked to the homelessness problem here.
That symbolism is nice, and liquor store profits could be used for short-term solutions like emergency shelters or travel vouchers. However, I think there’s enough political will among the people of Bemidji for a new tax that would specifically fund long-term homelessness efforts, like building permanent facilities or the public safety reform I mentioned earlier. I’m not sure whether that would be an increase to the property tax levy or a local-option sales tax. However, I am sure the money is needed and I’m confident the people of Bemidji care enough to support it.