Drop-in center floated as way to address homelessness in downtown Fargo

Downtown Fargo looking south along Broadway on Tuesday, June 16. Fargo is No. 3 on a recent Business Insider ranking of places that might attract more residents post-pandemic. Helmut Schmidt / The Forum

FARGO — As downtown small businesses continue their efforts to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, the city is mulling ways to address homelessness in an increasingly busy district of Fargo.

For years, a homeless and transient population that can be found congregating and drinking downtown has caused trouble, with occasional fights, panhandling or verbal abuse directed at residents and visitors.

The Fargo City Commission discussed the matter at their meeting last week and rejected a proposal to look further into making it easier to prosecute people for getting into fights.

The suggestion was to create a separate criminal violation that focuses on specific fighting behavior because in some disorderly conduct cases prosecution is difficult, with no witnesses to testify or when those involved decide against pursuing the issue.

Although fights take place across the city, they draw more attention downtown because of the heavier pedestrian traffic and the worry that it can cause more safety and quality-of-life issues, police argued in supporting the measure after they had requests from downtown residents to address concerns.


However, newly elected Commissioner Arlette Preston, who is leading the effort to reject the proposal, said, "We can't arrest ourselves out of this."

Instead, along with the strong urging of Commissioner John Strand, the commission later agreed in their discussion on a 5-0 vote to take a broader, long-term look at solutions for homelessness downtown.

Preston said one of the biggest steps they are hoping to take is opening a downtown drop-in center for the homeless that is open to "everyone and anyone." Recently, a similar type of center opened downtown but only for homeless veterans.

She hopes that center staff at the new drop-in facility could address alcohol and drug dependency, as well as mental health issues that lead to disruptive behavior.

Housing would also be an issue that could be worked on at the drop-in center, Preston said.

City staff will be investigating what types of facilities have worked in other cities, she said.

"The thing we want most is to be successful," she said about the effort.

A few of the business operators on the northern end of Broadway, where problems have earlier surfaced because of the bars and liquor store in that area, didn't know about the drop-in center plan but welcomed the effort.


Josie Danz, who operates Zandbroz Variety, said she has been pleased with the recent visibility and presence of police resource officers walking the streets of downtown.

"I think if a situation arises, they do a good job," she said.

Danz said she has always strongly believed that people need to accept or try to understand the homeless population in a more positive way as the city continues to grow. It's no different, she said, than in any other growing city in the country.

"They are part of our community, too," she said.

Despite occasional problems, Danz said she has always felt safe downtown.

"That has never changed," she said.

Preston said she feels the same way. In all of her years in living downtown, she can only recall one incident where she was scared, and that was when two drug dealers were fighting.

However, Preston said there seems to have been an uptick in unruly behavior downtown this year, especially earlier on. Part of the reason is that jail was trying to reduce its population because of the pandemic, she said.


Ashley Morken, who runs Unglued just a few stores down from Zandbroz, noticed an increase in problems in May, when the shop was reopening, with people on the street verbally assaulting some of her customers.

"It was dramatically more than normal," she said, adding that one of the reasons she believes it occurred is that police and homeless advocates were busy with the pandemic.

However, the situation has turned around, Morken said. Police are seen more often and any complaints from her customers have gone away as business has been picking up.

One of the simple issues that has helped, too, she said is the city simply removing benches within her block of stores along Broadway. The homeless or transients were gathering or sleeping on the benches.

Preston said the removal has worked, with some of the gatherings having dispersed to other places.

In the end though, the problems are "a tough nut to crack," Preston said.

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