Bismarck approves COVID-19 homeless shelter after heated discussion on personal freedom
After delaying their vote on the new homeless shelter to respond to critiques of the original plan, Bismarck commissioners voted to approve the plans for the new shelter, even as the main critic of the plan sat out Wednesday's meeting.
BISMARCK — The Bismarck City Commission voted 4-0 Wednesday, Sept. 23, to designate a local motel as a shelter for the city's homeless and vulnerable population following heated discussion of the decision the night before.
Even though commissioners unanimously accepted funding for the shelter weeks earlier, Bismarck residents expressed deep concern over the language in contracts written for the establishment of the shelter at the Bismarck Motor Motel and the hiring of a security service to distribute necessities and provide security for the shelter.
Much of the criticism of the shelter plan followed a Facebook live video, recorded by Commissioner Mark Splonskowski, in which he described the proposal as "tyranny" and claimed the Bismarck-Mandan COVID-19 Task Force was trying to jail citizens against their will.
At the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, Mayor Steve Bakken gave a presentation clarifying that the shelter was for residents who willingly sought its services after contracting COVID-19, noting residents could leave the shelter at any time, but would not be allowed to return after leaving.
The presentation did little to quell concerns, however, as almost a dozen Bismarck residents spoke up at the meeting expressing their dismay at an order that "took away" a person's liberties.
Kendi Chase, a Bismarck resident, said at the meeting she was concerned about the contract, even though she acknowledged the service was voluntary.
"As a citizen who is very concerned about the direction that we're going, I hope that you will be careful in regards to the steps that you take and recognize that the public health department does not represent the people, but you do," Chase said.
Many residents said the language of the contract was too vague and could be interpreted to encroach on the personal liberties of shelter residents.
"These contracts are so vague, it opens it up to complete interpretation," said Bismarck resident Justin Stable. "There is legit concerns in that contract about our constitutional rights."
Splonskowski said he was concerned about a person's freedom if they attended the shelter, as the contract states a security firm would be hired to ensure "each Shelter resident is to remain in their own room at the Shelter at all times," and "No visitors are allowed in to the designated resident area of the shelter other than medical care professionals."
"There's so many things here, just so many red flags are going up," Splonskowski said at the meeting. "... I couldn't be more proud of the people in this city right now. These people are smart; they're watching. They love their liberty and they're willing to defend it."
In response to the intense discussion over the shelter at Tuesday's meeting, the commission took a day to add new language to the proposal, clarifying that "no residents will be forced to remain at the Shelter."
The commissioners then voted to approve the revised shelter plan at a special session Wednesday. All commissioners present voted in favor of the shelter, but Splonskowski, whose critiques prompted the special meeting, did not attend.
He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the revised shelter proposal.
The state began the shelter program for North Dakota's vulnerable populations back in April. City officials said Tuesday that no residents in the state have left or tried to leave the shelter so far.
Overall, the state has sheltered 200 people in similar shelters for homeless and vulnerable populations, 38 of which have been in Bismarck as of Sept. 17, according to Sara Stolt, chief operating officer for the North Dakota Department of Human Services.
Earlier this month, the Fargo City Commission voted to approve a temporary shelter to open Nov. 1 for homeless and vulnerable populations. The shelter will be staffed with workers from the Gladys Ray Shelter — a homeless shelter run by the city of Fargo.
It is unknown how much it will cost to run the center, as the city is unsure how many people it will house once it opens, said Holly Scott, a spokesperson for Fargo Cass Public Health.
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