New citizen-led group: Mitchell needs its first general homeless shelter

Published: May. 23, 2023 at 7:27 AM CDT
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MITCHELL, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - While Sioux Falls and Rapid City are both deep in the woods in trying to figure out how to handle an increasing number of people who don’t have a home, South Dakota’s sixth and seventh biggest cities are also dealing with this issue.

A couple weeks ago, Dakota News Now went to Yankton, where some citizens said there is a need for a bigger homeless shelter.

In Mitchell, there is no homeless shelter, at least for the masses. Now, a citizen-led task force, formed in February, is looking to change that.

“It is very needed,” said Alex Freeman, a Salvation Army case worker and treasurer of that task force, called “Home for Now.”

“I see people almost everyday, and they are homeless or really close to being homeless, and they just don’t know what to do or where to go.”

There is a housing center for domestic abuse victims, and transitional housing for recovering male substance abusers.

Outside of that, if you are homeless in Mitchell and need a bite to eat or some clothes to wear, you can go to the Salvation Army. The folks there can point you to the Rural Office of Community Services (ROCS), who may have other resources.

But, if you’re looking for a place to stay, there are only two options — a one-night stay in the only hotel in town that currently allows the homeless to sleep, or a bus ticket to Sioux Falls to stay at a homeless shelter there.

Problem is, “a lot of people don’t like going there because it is too big of a city,” Freeman said. “They don’t want to be there. They want to be in a smaller town, but we don’t have the resources.”

There are different levels of homeless shelters. The most basic one — the kind the task force is hoping the city agrees to find — is an “emergency shelter.” A roof and a bed are not the only resources there that would greatly help the homeless start their path back to finding their own housing.

“Ideally, an emergency homeless shelter will have things in place to help people with job-training skills, help with some clothing for job interviews,” said Bill Middendorp, who is co-auxiliary manager of the Mitchell Salvation Army, along with wife Deb.

A place to bathe is a key element, as well, Middendorp said. The only current place for the homeless in Mitchell to shower is at truck stops.

Reverend Matthew Richards of the Congregational United Church knows homeless people in Mitchell who purposefully intoxicate themselves so they can get arrested and spend a night in jail in the colder months.

A few months ago, Richards was talking to a church member, who a few years ago around spring thaw time, found a homeless man’s dead body in one of the coverts around Mitchell.

“That really struck a chord,” Richards said.

Shortly after that discussion, Richards decided to start the “Home for Now” task force. It meets twice a month in the conference room of his church. The group includes the Middendorps and Freeman from Salvation Army, representatives from ROCS, two Dakota Wesleyan University professors (one religion, one psychology), and other private citizens.

The task force has become Richards’ passion project.

“It all begins with the Matthew 25 text,” Richards said, “where Jesus is telling his disciples and those listening, ‘Whatever you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me,’ and that is something I cannot ignore.”

Richards sent a to Mitchell city council members on April 1, informing them of the task force, and how serious it thinks the homelessness issue is in Mitchell. He told Dakota News Now he is frustrated that he has received no response from any city council member.

Mayor Bob Everson told DNN on Wednesday that the city’s ministerial association has come forward about the topic.

Told about the task force and its feeling that a homeless shelter is needed, Everson said:

“If they feel there is a need, we would be glad to sit down and discuss that need and what needs to be done. Now, will we have funding for it? I can’t say at this point in time.”

Richards says help from the city would be wonderful. But that the Rural Office of Community Service has told him it has access to federal funds and nationwide grants.

The road to attaining a homeless shelter seems like it will be a long one, but Richards is proud the journey has at least begun. He plans on leading the task force’s presentation to the city council sometime later this summer, and of coordinating with the Salvation Army, ROCS, and other concerned citizens to hold other events to bring the issue to light.

“It’s awesome that this (task force) wasn’t commissioned by the city council,” Richards said. “We are proud to be a grassroots campaign of citizens who truly care about their fellow residents.”

Freeman said about half the people she talks to in Mitchell don’t think there is a need for the shelter. Middenedorp said that there are far more homeless people than most think — the type that aren’t obvious. The ones beyond those you see holding up signs at interstate exits.

“In reality, you rub shoulders with them more frequently than you’ll ever imagine,” Middendorp said. “They’re sleeping in their car. They’re shopping at WalMart. They’re in the grocery store. That’s the kind of homelessness you don’t see.”