In response to emerging problems with crime and misbehavior in the city’s downtown skyway system, the City of St. Paul is proposing a change to its youth curfew.
But both the sponsor of the change and the downtown business people who have been looking for solutions say the move is only one small response to the problem, and more needs to be done.
The ordinance, introduced Wednesday by Council Member Rebecca Noecker, would add a section to the city’s current youth curfew to say that no one age 17 or younger could be in the skyways after 10 p.m. The ordinance will be subject to a public hearing before the council on July 20.
“Obviously this is one very small step in addressing a bigger issue,” said Noecker. While there have been complaints since she took office in January about increases in loitering and crime in the city’s skyway system, part of the problem is that there are a lot of people — mostly young people — who have nothing else to do but hang out, she said. The opening of the Green Line in June of 2014, along with the addition of a stair and elevator tower from the Central Station, also brought more people downtown and provided easier entree to the skyway.
The tower and the skyways are attractive places for people to congregate while they wait for trains or buses, to eat lunch or just talk with friends. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, they provide a vantage point to see approaching buses and Green Line trains. But the city does not allow people to loiter — downtown police officers often ask people to leave when they find them there.
Noecker said the new curfew was requested by the St. Paul Police Department, specifically the precinct that patrols downtown and the skyways, as a tool for officers. The ordinance would allow police to stop anyone who appears to be under the age of 18, ask for proof of age and direct them to leave the skyway.
The current curfew says kids 15 and younger are generally not to be out in public between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., while those ages 16 and 17 face a curfew beginning at 12:01 a.m. The skyways are considered to be among the public places covered by the current rule.
The proposed change would say that 16 and 17 years olds who are allowed to be on the streets until midnight can no longer be in the skyways after 10 p.m.
As with the general curfew, there are exceptions: if the young person is with a parent or supervising adult; on an emergency; on an errand directed by a parent or supervising adult; or in public as part of a job. The new ordinance includes another exception, that the curfew would not apply to “a minor exercising protected First Amendment rights under the United States or Minnesota Constitutions.” That is being added to reflect recent court cases elsewhere that found against a local government trying to enforce a curfew during a protest.
Noecker said that should the new skyway curfew pass, she would ask for assurances that there would be a time to educate the public about the change before it is enforced. “I don’t want enforcement without clear signage IN the skyways,” she said.
Noecker, who represents Ward 2, which includes downtown, said she is still working on other ways to address issues with the skyways and has been meeting with principals of high schools that serve the downtown area, the Community Ambassadors who work with youth downtown, the police, the YMCA staff and the members of the Skyway Governance Advisory Committee of the downtown council.
“There have been a number of ideas,” she said. “There is a need for more productive and engaging activities for young people downtown.”
One idea was forming a Youth Corps that would employ some of the same young people who hang out downtown to serve as “a hospitality crew” to help visitors find their way around. Noecker also hopes to convene a youth forum that would allow young people to say what they think could be done.
Andy Flamm, the chair of the skyway advisory committee, agrees that the issue intensified with the opening of the Central Station tower. His committee has heard more complaints over the past two years and has been meeting with city, police and business leaders about solutions. The issue sharpened early this year when a building owner starting locking the doors to her builidng from the skyway at 10 p.m. That resulted in a citation from the fire department because it violated city ordinances governing skyway hours.
Flamm too said the curfew, while positive, will not resolve all the problems. “We don’t think it will have a huge impact,” he said. “But it won’t hurt and could help a little.”
The advisory committee opposed reducing nighttime hours for all users and instead is focusing on assuring the system is used for its intended purpose — moving through downtown without confronting cold and heat.
“How do you keep people out who aren’t there to use it for what it’s purpose is,” Flamm said. “How do we make it more attractive to users and less attractive to those not using the skyways for those reasons?”
Another issue is the use of the skyways late at night by people who are homeless. Social service responses are being considered, including outreach to connect people with shelters. Yet until the new Dorothy Day Center is completed in December, overnight sleeping spaces for the homeless will be tight.