ROCHESTER — Olmsted County commissioners and Rochester City Council members voiced mixed levels of support for a new approach to addressing homelessness on Wednesday.

“We have reservations, but we think we should go forward, is what I’m taking away,” County Board Chairwoman Sheila Kiscaden said near the end of a two-hour meeting of the joint bodies.

The interpretation came after she asked the elected officials to raise up to five fingers showing their level of support for a proposed effort to work with community partners to develop a long-term plan to address homelessness.

The number of fingers raised ranged from two to five, which indicated total support.

“I don’t know how you are going to get 10 providers (working with people experiencing homelessness) to do the same thing,” council member Shaun Palmer said after indicating his skepticism with two fingers raised.

He said he’s received rude emails from providers since the Rochester council took the final step to approve a camping ban on city property two days earlier. Others, he said, have been known to “bad mouth” the county and city.

As several others on the council indicated full support for moving ahead, Olmsted County Housing Director Dave Dunn said he’s seen support from several community providers during recent meetings of a steering team set up to tackle the new initiative.

In addition to city and county staff, the group has representatives from The Salvation Army, The Landing MN, Catholic Charities of Southern Minnesota, Dorothy Day Hospitality House, Zumbro Valley Health Care and Three Rivers Community Action.

Dunn said the collaborative effort is critical to provide the tools needed to reduce homelessness to a level that allows for rapid response to help anyone losing stable housing.

“Instead of thinking about this as a problem that we can’t solve, let’s start thinking about a problem that we can solve and look at a system to allocate resources and re-allocated existing resources to look at the big picture,” he said, adding that the changed mindset requires support of local elected officials.

“I think a lot of this work will be done by your role as a community leader and helping to guide the rest of the community,” he told the council members and county commissioners.

The guidance, he said, will likely draw a variety of support.

Kiscaden pointed to community support gathered in the crowd of approximately 100 attendees at the Wednesday afternoon meeting, noting the included representatives of nonprofit agencies, clergy members, political candidates and business owners.

Commissioner Michelle Rossman said those groups and more will be needed.

“Without critical trusting partnerships in the community and with the nonprofit sector, we are not going to succeed in this,” she said, with the sentiment supported by other commissioners and city council members.

“I need assurance that this is not just the city and county working on this,” Mayor Kim Norton said.

Dunn said roles for a variety of partners are expected, but the goal is to emerge from future planning efforts with a unified vision that can provide a sustainable system to combat homelessness.

“We are not saying that there will never be any people that will ever experience any homelessness, but we are saying we want to have the tools that make it rare, brief and nonrecurring,” he said.

Olmsted County Associate Housing Director Mary O’Neil said the planned work is expected to include adopting a “Built for Zero” model, which calls for creating a collaborative team with a shared goal of ending homelessness, along with producing better data on who is unsheltered in the community.

Developed by New York-based Community Solutions, the concept has been credited with helping 14 communities achieve a “functional zero” level of homelessness for at least one population, such as veterans or chronically homeless individuals.

Functional zero is considered to be a level where existing programs can quickly respond to someone experiencing homelessness and provide needed support services.

She said that’s not currently possible to effectively provide that support with current resources.

“I would argue that the system is failing people,” she said. “I don’t agree that people are causing their own homelessness, whether it’s mental illness or substance use or trauma. I simply don’t believe that. I believe that it’s the system, and we don’t have the housing to support people with those types of challenges.”

With at least tentative support from the elected officials, city and county staff said they plan to move forward with work on developing a plan to create a system change.

Work will start with facilitated steering committee discussions, followed by anticipated community engagement starting in May.

With the added input, a community plan is expected to be presented during a follow-up meeting with both the City Council and County Board in August, which would likely lead to potential budget discussions related to the implementation of the plan.

As the plan is being developed, and if it is implemented, O’Neil said work will continue in addressing daily concerns and seeking to prevent homelessness when possible.

“The work continues,” she said. “We have pieces in place we can build upon. … We continue to do the work every day.”

Contact local government reporter Randy Petersen at