New shelter is not answer to Sioux Falls homeless problem, task force chair says

Rich Merkouris said resources are better spent on more housing, street outreach program
Published: Nov. 14, 2022 at 9:08 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - As freezing temperatures begin to set in across the area, the most vulnerable is the homeless population. According to one Sioux Falls Homeless Task Force member, the city has identified 650 homeless children this year. In 2021, it identified 1,097.

While Native Americans make up nine percent of South Dakota’s population, that group composes of a staggering 78 percent of the homeless population.

Sioux Falls officials kicked off “National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week” with a few events on Monday to call attention to the struggles that many people face.

In the morning at the Bishop Dudley House near downtown, Mayor Paul TenHaken issued a proclamation recognizing the number of people who seek help from local non-profit shelters, like Bishop Dudley, Union Gospel Mission, St. Francis House, The Banquet, and Feeding South Dakota.

A few hours later in downtown Sioux Falls, a small crowd of about 30 people took a several-blocks walk from Bishop Dudley to the Lutheran Social Services building on the Big Sioux River — and then held a memorial service — for the 53 people who died homeless in the city this past year.

Between those events, two members of the city’s new Homeless Task Force joined Sioux Falls police chief Jon Thom to speak to city business leaders at this week’s downtown rotary club meeting.

And despite the city’s three homeless shelters constantly filling to capacity, the task force chair told Dakota News Now that building another homeless shelter is not one of the group’s recommendations to address the city’s problem.

“People don’t realize the lift that it is to start a new shelter,” Rich Merkouris said. “For example, just the staffing requirement of starting another shelter. We don’t think putting our energy and resources in that manner is a good plan right now.”

Thum said a major focus in trying to ending the homeless epidemic — he said simply limiting it is a much more realistic goal — is identifying where it starts.

“In my career in law enforcement, we’ve found deceased individuals frozen to death on the street, and it was because the alcohol abuse was the primary thing that led to that,” Thum said. “And, so, if we don’t transition people into either a new housing situation or get them off the streets, just opening up capacity isn’t going to help those underlying issues of where we’re seeing the tragedies at.”

Substance abuse and mental illness are two of the leading causes of homelessness.

“Mental health is a common thread that has come up in every conversation,” Merkouris said.

A homeless woman who is currently staying at one of the homeless facilities told Dakota News Now that this is an issue the shelter does not adequately address.

“A lot of team members here do not know how to cope with the mental illnesses,” Angela Kramchuck said. “Mentally ill people need to go to places where they can have a transition to put them into the workforce.”

Kramchuck came to Sioux Falls from Grand Forks, North Dakota. She said that state, and Minnesota, have “bridge programs” that help mentally ill people cope with life and get them into the workforce. That, she said would help the overcrowding of the shelters.

Merkouris is on the same page, and said there are four recommendations the task force has made to the city and TenHaken to tackle homelessness, including “transitional housing.”

“Let’s get them transitioned out of the Bishop Dudley to create more capacity,” Merkouris said, mentioning a proposed program called “Housing First.”

“Let’s get you into housing, and then let’s start to work on other things, where you don’t require someone to get X, Y, and Z first,” Merkouris said. You get them in housing and then you help them start X, Y, and Z done.”

The city councilman understands that in order to find homeless people their own housing, the city must create more units for people that are at 30 to 50 percent of the city’s median income.

“It’s not going to be immediate, but I think conversation between the county and city will help determine how much public investment we want to make to maybe make an aggressive approach to build units,” Merkouris said.

But before new housing is found for the homeless, Merkouris said the city needs to establish a “street outreach team” concept similar to programs in happening in Denver, Rapid City, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Salt Lake City.

This would take a grant from the city to fund, and the city would hire people trained to interact both mentally ill and homeless people, have them approach those people, and help connect them with services for the homeless that exist in Sioux Falls. Merkouris said that with these programs, police calls about the homeless decreased by 1,500 over a year in Rapid City and by 2,300 in Salt Lake City.

“The thing that sticks out is, these individuals knew how to interact with the homeless,” Merkouris said. “Sometimes, it was on the third conversation when someone said ‘I want help,’ and sometimes it was on the 76th conversation.”

Services Merkouris said that the “street outreach team” could connect the homeless to are the three shelters, the Southeastern Behavioral Health Center, Volunteers of America, and The Link, which describes itself as “a safe place for people experiencing a non-violent behavioral health crisis or needing care for substance abuse disorders to access immediate treatment and referral to support services.”

This facility, according to its website, is “a collaboration of the City of Sioux Falls, Minnehaha County, Avera Health and Sanford Health. It offers our community an innovative approach to address gaps in critical services for people living with mental health and substance abuse challenges.”

Another recommendation the task force has made is a database that will help connect The Link with the shelters and places like Southeastern Behavioral Health, where those entities are “aware of what each other are doing and communicating with each other” about their clients. Merkouris calls that database the “Helpline Network of Care.”

“We need to have a conversation with The Link regarding Southeastern Behavioral, Avera, and Sanford and determine ‘how do we get the resources to that subset of our population regarding mental health.”

Another recommendation the task force has of the city and TenHaken is to “take the time with the city’s chief of police and attorneys and review our laws and ordinances regarding panhandling,” Merkouris said.

“There’s a lot of concern in our community about the growth of panhandling, and what authority do we have to adjust our ordinances a bit.”

Thum said while law enforcement plays a role in responding to and taking care of homeless people who cause disturbances like violence or public intoxication, there is nothing in the city’s laws that prevent people from asking others for money, or from hanging out in a public park.

“It is a First Amendment right,” Thum told the rotary crowd. “We can’t enforce our way out of this issue.”

Thum again mentioned that most of what the police deals with concerning homeless people are driven by addiction and mental illness.

Two other culprits of homelessness, Merkouris pointed out, are generational poverty — people born into poverty who don’t have, or are able to find, the resources to find their way out — and adverse circumstances.

The other task force member at the rotary meeting was Anny Libengood, a social worker who has served on several human service, education, and housing boards.

She offered to the rotary crowd a story about a 69-year-old man she worked with whose low-rent apartment flooded. He had no way to deal with it other than to live with the standing water and mold. He was evicted and came to Libengood asking her to help direct him to subsidized housing.

The problem, Libengood said, is to apply for subsidized housing, a person needs to fill out a thick stack of paperwork. The man had arthritis and was blind, which made filling out the paperwork challenging at best and impossible at most.

“To see him break down about having a chance to have a house was humbling,” Libengood said.

About an hour later, the names of all 53 people who died homeless in Sioux Falls in the last year were called. Some of the loved ones of the deceased told touching stories and described personalities they remember fondly, with tears in their eyes and the kind of shakes in their bodies appeared to be a byproduct of more than just the cold November air.

Merkouris, a city councilman and local pastor, led the ceremony, and at one point reminded the small crowd that every homeless person you walk by is a human being of inherent value and worth.

It’s a reminder to us all.

To find out more about the events of Sioux Falls Hunger and Homelessness Week, click here.