RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — About 50 people lined the southeast corner of the Rapid City Skate Park parking lot one afternoon this month waiting for soup from the Hope Center.
One after the other, they said thank you and spoke with the center’s volunteers, who greet them by name.
Hope Center Executive Director Melanie Timm said the faith-based nonprofit began feeding what she calls their guests — homeless and non-homeless — in the skate park in August. She said they feed about 80 to 100 people at a time at 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
A similar scene plays out almost every day in Rapid City and recently prompted Mayor Steve Allender to hold a press conference to say the city doesn’t have enough resources to meet the needs of every homeless person west of the Missouri River and that the growing population is attracted to the city by 11 organizations that feed them.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Timm said the center saw the need to feed and decided to help. She said an overwhelming number of volunteers wanted to help them initially provide food at the center on Kansas City Street in downtown Rapid City.
“We were going to step in, we were going to provide that service,” she said. “It’s not a line item on our budget, never has been.”
Feeding the homeless also gave the volunteers a first-hand look at a population that struggles, Timm said.
“But being outside for four months made homelessness very visible, and homelessness is not pretty,” she said. “It’s ugly, it’s complicated, it’s emotional.”
Timm said on one day she received a photo of a number of individuals sleeping outside the Hope Center. It was eye opening, she said.
“It really hurts my heart they’re sleeping outside on our sidewalk, that they’re sleeping outside anywhere,” she said. “But for some that’s their comfort level. That’s what they’re used to, that’s their choice. They want to be close to the earth, they want to lay outside and watch the stars. They should be able to do that without fear of violence or their things being stolen.”
Timm, however, said Mayor Allender was correct when he said in his press conference that the city doesn’t have enough resources to help everyone, the Rapid City Journal reported,
“Particularly when you’re dealing with people who have mental health issues and they have addiction issues and they’ve experienced a lot of trauma in their life, it gets very difficult,” she said. “To be able to find the right service to meet that person’s needs is sometimes challenging.”
Mona Herrington with Oyate Kin Chatewastepi, another organization that feeds the homeless in Rapid City, said she couldn’t listen to Allender’s entire conference.
“He said they’re coming from the reservation because we’re feeding them, and these people, they’ve been here, they’ve all been here,” she said. “There’s a couple that came and are estranged, but they don’t have anywhere to go on the reservation. They haven’t been there. They need a place, we need a building.”
Allender said providing a building was on a list of demands given to him at a an earlier meeting. He said that would only be a short-term solution and homelessness is an “insurmountable problem without an adequate solution.”
Oyate Kin Chatewastepi serves meals to the homeless at 5 p.m. on Fridays at the Founders Park bandshell. Herrington said the group feeds between 150 and 200 people per meal now, which has grown from the 30 to 75 served in 2018.
Curtis Touche from the Lower Brule Reservation was following his girlfriend when he moved to Rapid City about 10 years ago. He said she’s back on the reservation now, but he has friends here. He also said he knows where to go to find food and other things he needs, which now includes socks since winter is coming.
The downside of homelessness, he said, is that it can be dangerous out there.
“Nights, we’ve been walking through here all night and you hear gunshots all the time,” Touche said. “You hear cop sirens all the time. When you go to sleep, when you fall asleep, it’s really appreciable, but when you wake up, it’s really hard to go back to sleep around it.”
Touche said people wake up early since that’s the best time to get something to eat and everyone looks out for each other — like a family.
Majooie Little Eagle said she was homeless and now comes to the Hope Center’s feeding to support the others, including her daughter.
“I got my own place,” she said, “but I got one daughter that she’s got no place to go. So, I get scared for her in the night.”
Brendyn Medina, public information officer for the Rapid City Police Department, said the department’s Quality of Life Unit has noticed an increase in the number of new homeless people over the past six months.
The unit, he said, make contacts with the homeless and works to form relationships with them. Police Chief Don Hedrick said at the mayor’s press conference that the unit has helped get 70 people off the streets since its inception in 2018.
At Allender’s press conference on Sept. 30, he said there are about 100 new faces in the homeless population this year, many from nearby reservations. He said they are attracted to free meals served in city parks.
Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner responded to the conference by saying Allender’s comments were “racist, ignorant, inflammatory and insensitive.”
Allender said Thursday he’s still willing to work toward a solution to help the homeless, but isn’t sure if a compromise is possible before winter starts.
After every red Powerade and water bottle was passed out and each bowl filled with soup made by volunteers was served earlier this month, recipients sat together under the shade of a tree.
For Little Eagle, it was having a meal with her daughter. For Touche, it was a meal with friends celebrating his 37th birthday.
“It’s not a cake,” he said. “Not everything’s perfect, but you just have to go with what you have around here.”