Officials discuss concerns regarding homeless man in Watertown

Watertown resident Bob Hansch, who is homeless, stands on Lewis Avenue in downtown Watertown on a recent afternoon. The Watertown City Council and the Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce have both discussed in recent weeks concerns regarding Hansch's behavior when he is drinking, which many say constitutes a public nuisance.

Watertown resident Bob Hansch, who is homeless, stands on Lewis Avenue in downtown Watertown on a recent afternoon. The Watertown City Council and the Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce have both discussed in recent weeks concerns regarding Hansch’s behavior when he is drinking, which many say constitutes a public nuisance.

With his leather jacket and cowboy hat, Bob Hansch is easy to spot, and usually even easier to hear.

Whether it’s the sound of his harmonica or guitar, or just the sound of his booming voice, most people hear him coming before they see him along Lewis Avenue in downtown Watertown.

Hansch — who admits that he has struggled with sobriety for years — can be loud even when he’s sober. When he is sober, though, he’s almost always friendly and polite, usually just looking for somebody with whom to chat.

Hansch, who has lived in Watertown since the mid 1960s, has been homeless for many of those years. Over the years, he’s spent time sleeping in a tent outside of town, under the bridge, or in old abandoned buildings.

If it wasn’t for his frequent drinking, it would be easy to view Hansch, 57, as a sympathetic figure. But to a growing number of city officials and downtown business owners, Hansch’s drunken behavior is eliciting more frustration than sympathy as of late.

“He’s just a really nice guy when he’s sober, but he’s scary when he’s been drinking,” said Jim May, owner the MarketPlace Foods grocery store, one of many businesses where Hansch is no longer allowed. “You never know which Bob you’re going to get.”

City officials recently met with representatives of both the Carver County Sheriff’s Office and the Carver County Attorney’s Office to address concerns about Hansch’s behavior, and in particular, the frequent complaints received from local businesses and other residents. Members of the Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce also spent time discussing the issue during their meeting on Oct. 16.

 

Growing frustration

Hansch’s frequent drunkenness is certainly not new to Watertown residents or business owners. He’s been around downtown Watertown for decades, and his boisterous drunken behavior seems to have become so commonplace in Watertown that many people have come to accept — or at least tolerate it — as part of everyday life. While his behavior can be loud, obnoxious and at times obscene, he generally seems to be perceived as harmless.

Many business owners, however, seem to be growing wary of that perception. While most declined to speak publicly for this story, several spoke openly during the Chamber of Commerce meeting last week about what they say include numerous threats of violence, public urination within view of Lewis Avenue, and one incident in which Hansch allegedly carried a hammer into a business.

Mostly, though, the business owners seemed concerned about their customers feeling uncomfortable when Hansch is around. Numerous businesses have filed no trespass orders against Hansch, which makes it a crime for him to even be on the property.

“It’s just really frustrating for a business when you have a person that people don’t want to be around, and he’s outside your business,” said May, one of the businesses that recently had a no trespass order filed against Hansch. “I was sending him mixed messages for about a year, because when he is sober, he’s a really nice guy. But he came into my business one day and was being a total nuisance, and I just said, this is enough.”

While complaints regarding Hansch have mostly been of the public nuisance variety, Mayor Charlotte Johnson expressed concern that his behavior could turn into an unintentional public safety concern.

“In so many situations, after something happens, people say, ‘we knew something was eventually going to happen,’” Johnson said. “I’m not so sure he’s harmless.”

That’s one of the reasons Johnson invited Cpl. Troy Carlson and Commander Paul Tschida of the Carver County Sheriff’s Office, along with Peter Ivy of the Carver County Attorney’s Office, to address the city council regarding the issue during the Council’s Oct. 8 meeting. While Hansch wasn’t technically named during the meeting, repeated references were made to a single individual who is homeless and has a drinking problem, and Johnson later openly discussed Hansch during an interview with the Carver County News.

During the meeting, Johnson asked Carlson and Tschida to address, in general terms, what actions businesses can take in instances when somebody is causing a public nuisance, as well as how the city can prevent this type of behavior.

Tschida said the most efficient thing a business can do is to file a no trespass order, and Carlson noted that reporting the incident immediately is important.

“We need to know about this stuff as it’s happening so we can respond as  quickly as possible; not two, three or four hours later, or a day later, when it’s already done,” Carlson said.

 

Limited options

During last week’s Chamber of Commerce meeting, several businesses expressed at least some displeasure that nothing ever seemed to come of their complaints to the Sheriff’s Office. However, city administrator Luke Fischer was quick to come to the defense of local law enforcement, saying that the authorities have responded to all calls, but that in many instances, their options are limited.

“Every time somebody talks to you and says something you don’t like doesn’t necessarily constitute a crime, and you can’t just throw somebody in jail for that,” Fischer said. “To say that nothing has been done is an unfair characterization.”

Hansch does have a lengthy criminal history in Minnesota, mostly for relatively minor violations. According to online Minnesota Circuit Court records, he’s been convicted of 26 misdemeanors since 1994, with all but four occurring since 2000. The majority of offenses have been in Carver County, with a few in Wright and Hennepin counties. Most have been for disorderly conduct, including his most recent offense in June. Hansch has never been convicted of a felony.

However, other misdemeanor convictions have included damage to property, domestic assault, stalking/harassment, consumption in a public place, and a gross misdemeanor for fourth-degree burglary. Peter Ivy of the Carver County Attorney’s Office said the challenge with those types of charges is that they are often of the “he-said, she-said” variety, which are almost impossible to prosecute unless somebody is willing to testify in court.

Misdemeanor charges also are not enhanceable, he said, meaning that repeat offenses are not factored into sentencing. Most of Hansch’s convictions have included either probation or short jail sentences, with the latter most often being in the range of 30 to 60 days. It is unknown how many days Hansch has actually spent in jail for his numerous offenses, but it is rare for anybody to serve their full sentence for a misdemeanor.

“The maximum penalty is 90 days for a misdemeanor, but not once in 25 years have I seen anybody do 90 days in jail,” Ivy told the city council, adding that jail time has never been a deterrent in this situation, anyway. “This particular individual, it doesn’t faze him. He doesn’t care, especially now that it’s getting colder.”

Ivy indicated that one possible alternative could eventually be an involuntary civil commitment for mental health reasons, but he said that seems unlikely. That would require a petition through Carver County Social Services, as well as a medical doctor’s opinion that the person is an overt danger to himself or others, which Ivy said is a pretty high standard.

“To date, there has been nothing to force us into a commitment proceeding for mentally ill and dangerous,” he said. “It’s not there. You have an alcohol issue with this hypothetical case.”

 

“A terrible life”

Hansch, according to a 1999 story in the Carver County News, arrived in Watertown at the age of 11 with his father in the mid 1960s. By the age of 12, he said in that story, he was on his own, the result of an alcoholic father who often hit him.

Hansch completed ninth grade at the local high school before dropping out, spending his high school years staying with as many as four other families that took him in periodically, or in abandoned buildings. He has stayed in Watertown ever since, largely because he says it’s home.

“It’s the only town I know,” he said recently, when asked why he’s stayed in Watertown for so long. “I’ve been here since 1965. My dad dropped me off here when I was a kid, and I’ve been sleeping on the streets off and on ever since.”

Hansch used to live several miles outside of town in a tent, but lately has been spending his nights under a bridge. Last year, he said he spent some time living above Geneo’s Pizza in exchange for some painting and other work he did. Hansch said his only income comes from playing his guitar and banjo.

Hansch said he doesn’t see himself as a nuisance, and certainly doesn’t try to be. He said he simply craves human interaction.

“I’m homeless and I get lonely, he said. “When I see people, I want to talk to them. I’m just a friendly guy.”

Hansch also said he tries to abide by the wishes of businesses who don’t want him around.

“If anybody ever sees me and tells me to go, I go,” he said, while identifying at least five businesses he’s not allowed inside of. “I’m not looking for any trouble. Right now I’m just looking for $2 so I can get my jug for the day. That’s my life right now. It’s a terrible life.”

At least one business owner who spoke during the Chamber of Commerce meeting last week agreed that Hansch has abided by all the restrictions that law enforcement placed upon him several years ago regarding his behavior while in that particular business. May, however, was more skeptical of Hansch’s ability to follow the rules.

“When you tell him when he’s sober what he did when he was drunk, he’s very apologetic,” May said. “But when he’s drunk, he forgets everything you talked about and you’re back to square one.”

Hansch said he also deals with his own share of frustration with residents in Watertown. He said kids frequently pop the tires on his bike or steal his blankets, forcing him to keep moving around town.

“With people popping your tires and stealing your stuff,” he said, “you just throw your hands up in the air and get a jug and sit by the river and get drunk. I play my harmonica, and hoot and holler to the fish. Then I get lonely, and I see people, and I’m a yacker. I’m a people person.”

Hansch said he’s made numerous attempts to get sober in recent years. He said he stayed sober for 11 months a few years ago, and last summer he stayed sober for four months. Largely, he said he believes he is misunderstood by a lot of people.

“Now all these new people and yuppies are moving in, and they’re the ones that are complaining,” he said. “They don’t know who the heck I am. They don’t know what to think of me. They don’t know the rough road I’ve been down.”

 

A tough dilemma

Mayor Johnson remembers the first time she came across Hansch in public. She said that experience helps her understand some of the complaints the city has received, and why people often feel uncomfortable around him.

“He can be scary when he’s intoxicated,” Johnson said. “I remember the first time I saw him. He was out walking, and he came toward me, and he didn’t have his shirt on, and he seemed wild. He scared me. When he’s like that, he’s scary.”

But Johnson also knows Hansch isn’t always like that, and it’s the alcohol that makes him that way. As mayor, she faces the delicate balance of trying to respond to citizens’ complaints about Hansch, while also being compassionate toward a  man without a home. That dilemma is made even more complex in that a small town like Watertown is not equipped with social services to deal with issues like homelessness.

“It would be so nice if somebody could reach out to him and help him,” Johnson said. “I don’t want him out there homeless. I don’t want him out there so intoxicated that his poor body just can’t take it any more. … But at the same time, I want the citizens of Watertown and the businesses of Watertown to not have to put up with this disturbance.”

Johnson said that ultimately, it seems as though any solution will have to start with Hansch. She noted, however, that quite a few people have tried to help him or get him into treatment over the years, and it either hasn’t worked or he’s refused the help.

“I am concerned about his well being,” Johnson said. “There has to be someone who can get to him and say, ‘Bob, is this really the life you want?’”

 

Contact Matt Bunke at matt.bunke@ecm-inc.com

 

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