A new way for South Dakota to fight homelessness is to use “street outreach teams” to find vulnerable people in the community, talk to them, and get them the help they need. This takes some of the burdens off of law enforcement.
The effort shows that public officials in Rapid City and Sioux Falls know that the causes of homelessness and drug addiction are complicated and often tied to mental health problems. They also know that getting to the root of the situation could have a more significant and longer-lasting effect than just giving people food or a place to stay temporarily.
The street outreach strategy was the top recommendation of a Sioux Falls Homeless Task Force formed in the summer of 2022. It also considers that a disproportionate number of South Dakota’s homeless are Native Americans, which can cause cultural and language barriers that make it hard to help, especially when police are the first ones on the scene.
Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum, who has worked with the task force to find solutions, said, “Law enforcement can be well-equipped and well-trained, but a lot of the time, the people we’re dealing with are going to be hostile because (police officers) aren’t always the people they want to hear that message from.” “Someone from a different background or with a different point of view who has time to build relationships with them could be the one to help them make positive changes.”
The South Dakota Housing for the Homeless Consortium did its most recent point-in-time homeless count on January 25, 2022. It found 1,389 homeless people in the state, nearly 50% more than five years ago (955 in 2017). The number in Rapid City was 458, 53% more than in 2017, and the number in Sioux Falls was 407. This is a 26% increase from 2017. People without homes are hard to find and identify, especially in the middle of winter, so these numbers are often thought to be “undercounts.”
Native Americans make up 8.8% of the state’s population as a whole, but they made up nearly 70% of the homeless in the state in 2022, including 76% in Rapid City.
Native Americans make up 8.8% of the state’s population as a whole, but they made up nearly 70% of the homeless in the state in 2022, including 76% in Rapid City. 36% of people who are homeless live in Sioux Falls. According to the count, Indigenous people have used Rapid City and other communities as a model for “co-response” efforts to get to the root of people’s problems and help them find services when they’re ready.
The Sioux Falls task force has suggested a two-year pilot program for a street outreach team. This team would work with city and county officials and the Sioux Falls Police Department to offer “trauma-informed practices” and “peer support strategies.” The cost of this program is estimated to be $500,000 over two years. The proposal comes after more complaints about people asking for money at exit ramps of interstates and more attention paid to homeless people downtown because of recent growth.
Rich Merkouris, a first-term city councilor who led the task force, said, “It’s no longer ‘out of sight, out of mind.'” “From what the committee has seen, it looks like we’re still not so busy that it’s starting to eat away at the heart of the community, but people are worried. After seeing what was done in other cities, we thought it might be better to work with these people differently than just calling the police when things got out of hand. Thum, who took over as police chief in the summer of 2021, said that people couldn’t be arrested for holding signs asking for money. It’s a bigger problem when they do it on private property or step into the street to ask for cash or get it from drivers.
Most of the time, though, he sees panhandling and calls about public nuisances as signs of problems that can be fixed by people who have lived on the streets or who have training in social work and cultural outreach.
“It’s easy to look at many problems in society and paint them with a broad brush, but what’s our best chance to make progress?” Thum said. “People who know more about other cultures and don’t bring the same historical baggage to these situations as law enforcement might have a better chance of making a positive difference. It’s natural for us to want to work with people we think to get us better. If there’s a way to make law enforcement’s job easier and start a group or project that could change people’s lives, we should look into it.
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Rapid City’s Street Outreach Makes a Difference
The Department of Housing and Urban Development says that about 580,000 people in the United States are without homes. Almost every big city has to deal with this problem in some way. Recently, tent cities and other encampments have sprung up to help people in need in the short term.
In South Dakota, more and more people agree that preventative measures based on counseling for mental health and drug addiction are the best way to go. Public-private partnerships make it possible to take a more specialized and targeted approach.
Rapid City’s Care Campus, a “one-stop shop” with detox, crisis care, and mental health treatment, opened in 2019. Pennington County Health and Human Services work with groups like Safe Solutions, which gives people who are too drunk to stay at some homeless shelters a place to sleep for the night.
In 2021, Sioux Falls opened The Link, a community triage center that helps people with non-violent mental health crises or substance abuse problems. The Link is a partnership between the city, Minnehaha County, the Sanford and Avera health systems, and the Sanford and Avera hospitals.
But as the number of homeless people rises, it has become harder to find enough trained people to make a difference. This puts more pressure on law enforcement. As part of the street outreach strategy, city governments sign contracts with private groups that work with homeless people to help them get back into society or keep them safe.
Journey On is a non-profit group started in Rapid City in 2019 to deal with the growing tensions between homeless people, primarily Native Americans, and local businesses. These tensions have led to problems with the police. More than 60% of police calls in Rapid City are about people who are homeless, according to Mayor Steve Allender and Police Chief Don Hedrick. This led city leaders to try a different approach.
“For Sioux Falls, this could be a preventative measure that keeps the homeless problem from becoming a threat to public health, but in Rapid City, we’re already there,” said Rich Braunstein, the outreach director for Journey On, which signed a contract with the city in January 2022. Volunteers of America is also a part of this contract.
All of the 16 people on Journey On’s team are Indigenous, and many of them have been homeless themselves. They go out on the streets wearing their signature green clothes in four vans to make connections for the public’s safety. Calls to Journey On can come from anywhere, like a business telling them about a drunk person in an alley or a concerned citizen telling them about a mother and her kids who are out in the cold but aren’t dressed for it. The vans move whether or not something needs to be done. This is because being proactive is part of the plan.
“Every day, we go out into the community to find people who are homeless or at risk,” said Braunstein, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota and a board member of Journey On. “We start those conversations. We’re not waiting in a station for someone to call us. We try to build a trusting relationship with them by visiting them repeatedly until they’re ready to use our services.
Braunstein said that team members are on duty six days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (and from noon to 9 p.m. on Saturdays) and take up to 80 calls daily from businesses. They can also be told to answer 911 calls for things that aren’t violent. Whereas police officers may need to wrap up a situation quickly so they can move on to the next call, Journey Up staff can spend several hours with vulnerable people, who they call “relatives” using Lakota terms for family relationships.
“Law enforcement knew that for the community to heal and grow, the Native community had to be given the tools to deal with some of the biggest problems it faced,” Braunstein said. “Even though they are asked to be social workers, police officers are not social workers. Because our team members have all lived in dangerous neighborhoods, they can calm things down just by being there, like a brother or sister coming to help a person on the street. It’s a win-win situation because it lets the police focus on people who have been hurt by violence and do a better job of policing.
Finding Safety and Respect on the Street
Monique “Muffie” Mosseau helps people living on the streets more independently, and she stays away from groups that work with the police. Her Rapid City-based group, Uniting Resilience, fights for the rights of Native Two-Spirit LGBTQ people. This puts her in touch with young people who are on their own, don’t have a place to stay, and are often cut off from their families.
Mosseau and her wife, Felipa De Leon, help the homeless by giving them coats, gloves, and hygiene products. Mosseau’s Oglala Lakota heritage gives them a level of trust and understanding that city-run shelters can’t match.
Mosseau, who grew up in Pine Ridge, said, “Most of us have been through a reservation system, which gives us a common thread of trauma.” “We don’t think of “homeless” people as being homeless. Many were taken away from families that shamed them because that was how things were done in colonial times. “Why are you out here?” we ask. And everyone says the same word: “Freedom.” That’s a solid point. They got away from the things people expect of them.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t need help, though. Many people are stuck in a cycle of addiction that makes it hard to get out and try something else. Mousseau said that there is more outreach to Native Americans in Rapid City than in Sioux Falls but that neither city has as hard of a time taking care of homeless people as Salt Lake City, Utah, where she helped bring food and services to people in need.
“That opened my eyes,” she said. “After being at a homeless feed in Salt Lake for about 30 minutes, I had to pull myself away and go to my car, where I completely lost it. I couldn’t believe how much things had changed. It is terrible. They must use drugs to stay awake to stay safe and avoid being attacked while they sleep. Some of them don’t sleep for 10 days, and then they go far away and fall asleep. This is how dangerous it is.”
Because Mousseau and De Leon are well-known in the Two Spirit LGBTQ community, they can help the homeless, who are among the most vulnerable. She remembers meeting a young man from Ohio who had to leave his home because his father beat him up after he told him he was gay.
Mousseau said, “Homophobia has forced many people into the streets.” “This was a blonde boy with blue eyes whose dad beat him up, so he ran away. He was 15 at the time, and we met him in Rapid City when he was 22 and had lived in several places. We helped him get his ID to get a job at Pizza Hut. People who are homeless don’t tell each other about their sexuality, but they’ll find us and take us aside to talk about it. All that matters is safety and respect. They know that anything they tell us is safe.”
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Sioux Falls’ Plan Could Be Approved in January
In Sioux Falls, the Homeless Task Force is working with Mayor Paul TenHaken and his staff to find the money for the street outreach plan so it can be taken to the city council. Pastor Merkouris, who is in charge of the committee and works at the King of Glory Church in Sioux Falls, hopes to bring a specific plan to the council in January. If the money is approved, groups could then apply to work with the city on street outreach if they are chosen.
The task force wants to ensure that whichever group is chosen prioritizes Native American experiences and works with the Helpline Network of Care. This infrastructure system lets social service agencies share information.
Merkouris thinks the chosen organization could be one of many local groups in Sioux Falls that do similar work, such as South Dakota Urban Indian Health, Southeastern Behavioral Health, Union Gospel Mission, or another group. But they would need to improve and grow their way of doing things.
“Currently, none do street work that includes Native Americans,” Merkouris said, adding that the contracted group will have to pay for these services as part of a financial commitment. “We don’t think the cost we proposed as a city will cover the total cost of the street team. We expect that other grants will be applied for, and this (public money) will help the organization provide better services.
How the street outreach group will work with law enforcement in Sioux Falls is one of the details that still need to be worked out. However, Merkouris has talked to officials in Rapid City and hopes to use some of their ideas for coordinating 911 calls. Thum, the chief of police in Sioux Falls, said there might be some trial and error in the beginning, but he thinks this is a necessary part of dealing with homelessness before it gets worse.
Thum said, “City government and other groups are often put under pressure to ensure that when they launch a program, it will work perfectly from the start.” “But I think we’ll keep getting what we’ve always had if we never try or start. This project might start looking one way and then change into something else, but we’ll never know if we don’t start it.