The city’s response to homelessness is about as cold as the coldest month of the year
MNI-LUZAHAN (RAPID CITY)—Winter may be warm at times in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We currently are experiencing those Banana Belt days when day time sunny temperatures can soar into the 60’s. But don’t be fooled. The wind will blow-in the cold and bring the temperature down to freezing as the coldest month of the year, December, approaches. While many residents are preparing their lists for Santa, about 500 people will be searching every day for shelter and food.
Local organizers used their First Amendment protections to peaceably assemble, calling on locals to pack the regular City Council meeting on Monday night and to use the public comment period for any issue not on the agenda to speak in favor of saving the Hope Center either in its current location or to approve a new location.
City Council members and attendees were packed into the small Circle of Friends (Okolakiciyapi Oti) room, a temporary meeting place as City Hall is in the midst of renovations. In anticipation of the overflow, the city provided a room off of the main meeting with chairs, a large screen TV as well as crisp, clear audio piped into the room.
All Council members were in attendance with the exception of Alderman John Roberts from Ward 4.
The invocation by Pastor Scott Wylie, asked for God to direct Council, “Let us pray. God of justice and mercy. Thank you for the gift of life and the opportunity to serve the people of our city. Help us to act with character and conviction. Help us to listen with understanding and goodwill. Help us to speak with charity and restraint. Give us the spirit of service and unity and remind us that we are stewards of your authority. Guide us to be the leaders your people need. Help us to see the humanity and dignity of those who disagree with us and to treat all persons no matter their perspective or personality with the honor and respect your creation deserves. And finally Father, renew us with the strength of your presence and the joy of helping to build a community beneficial to all its citizens. And we ask this in the precious name of Christ. Amen.”
An attendee who spoke out asking for “prayers for our unhoused relatives” was dismissed as city leaders moved on to the Pledge of Allegiance.
The first order of business came when Ward 3 Alderman Greg Strommen made a motion to move general public comment to the end of the meeting right before the bill list. He said they could do other business ahead of time because “we have a lot of requests.”
Council proceeded swiftly through the agenda approving requests for sidewalk variances, appeals for planning commission decisions regarding oversize garages, alcoholic beverage licenses and more.
Most of the attendees stayed for the length of the meeting and there were more than 30 requests to speak.
Executive Director of COUP Council Natalie Stites Means, the first to speak, said that the city had abdicated it’s duties to help “our unhoused relatives. Hope centers not being able to move, not being able to grow or exist even, in our city. There are over 3 thousand people, I understand, who use the Hope Center as an address because they are housing insecure. We just listened to you all talking and debating about huge garages for all these property owners and all this development. I didn’t hear a lot of talk about the community. I didn’t hear a lot of talk about who is in need in our community and I challenge all of you here who identify and work for Christian churches to reflect on your religious beliefs. Because right now, none of us are seeing the Christianity in this city government. The Hope Center should be open and functioning, but it was never enough in the first place. There’s great unmet needs that aren’t even being considered in these public discussions.
Stites Means said this is about the rights of all people. “It’s our constitutional right to prepare meals for our community and distribute them from public parks. It’s our free speech and for many of our people it is our freedom of religion to serve the poor, to offer charity. We’re just trying to keep our people alive in this city.”
Stites Means spoke about the hardship of living day to day and the help the Hope Center provides like using it as an address as well as ID fees to get a driver’s license. “That’s the level of struggle that the Hope Center is addressing and that you all have abandoned apparently. Now is not the time for law enforcement to replace services like healthcare, like social services. We have over a-thousand non-profits registered in Rapid City and what are they doing for the community? What are they doing for the city? What are they doing for those of us who don’t often come to these city council meetings because we are not welcome here. When you put public comment at the end, we see you, Pastor Mayor, we see you.”
Tony Diamond spoke about the city’s own resolution to reduce homelessness which stated that the city of Rapid City and Pennington County intend to initiate a dialogue in order address this critical need yet Diamond noted its absence from the agenda. “We are coming into the colder months. At a time when our citizens will be dying on the streets. Shouldn’t that be a priority?”
Long-time resident Mary Hahn urged Council to meet the actual needs of the community. She said the Hope Center’s proposed expansion has been “wildly popular for one reason, because it actually meets the needs for folks who are experiencing some of the most difficult struggles of their lives.”
The options so far have been inadequate Hahn said and described the Safe Bed, “ a detox center run by cops that requires folks to be under the influence to stay. There’s the Cornerstone Rescue Mission an over populated space which requires people to be sober and there’s One-Heart, a high barrier service run by an executive director who co-authored with her husband, a well-recognized lieutenant on the Rapid City Police force, a book called “Political Prostitution” which advocates for veiled eugenics and governmental forms of population control.” Hahn was referencing a book written by former council member Charity Doyle. “And these are the people that Rapid City has put in charge of finding solutions for our unsheltered relatives.”
Hahn spoke about the community’s strong Christian identity, including Council members, yet noted how Council frequently votes in ways that will cause “death from exposure, harm to people’s wellness and criminalize those that fall beneath a specific income bracket.” She noted evictions are on the rise and traditionally low wages make it difficult to subsist. She called the city’s inadequate approach a reckless disregard for human life. Hahn said that Council is obligated to serve citizens whether or not they possess a residence “or a giant garage.” She also called on the Council to follow through with their own convictions saying this Council is “comprised of multiple people of faith and you are mandated to care for the poor and the oppressed. Do your jobs.”
Alderman Bill Evans spoke with members of the community after the meeting offering words of support for the Hope Center’s relocation, saying “because it’s the right thing to do.”
Natalie Stites Means COUP Council Executive Director spoke with Native Sun News and said it’s difficult with leadership who believe in the inherent inferiority of the very people they say they are trying to help. “They don’t have the chops, the education or the experience to examine these issues.”
Below is an emailed response from the Mayor’s office at the request of Native Sun News Today:
“The Hope Center’s decision to close is disappointing. Based on what’s been disclosed, the Hope Center is closing due to a combination of factors. Hope Center officials have also made it clear a new facility would be a couple of years away from reality no matter what location is chosen. The facility’s lease was scheduled to expire next summer and resources and support were being reduced to the point where the facility could not continue operations. The City Council’s decision had nothing to do with the mission of the Hope Center, but was based on concerns of the neighborhood regarding placing the facility in a residential area. These are unfortunate challenges and we hope other non-profits can absorb some of the important services that were provided by the Hope Center.
It’s important to note that the City Council has allocated more than two million dollars in the 2024 budget for crisis services. This significant funding includes Volunteers of America, Cornerstone Rescue Mission, JourneyOn, WAVI, and the Care Campus. Some of the actions you cite were taken with safety of our community residents in mind as no one is allowed to take up shelter or residence in the flood plain near the creek. This is why we encourage those in need to use existing services in order to remain safe.
Addressing homelessness in our city must be a community solution, not just one dictated by City government. City officials remain committed to working with community stakeholders to identify positive efforts to help reduce homelessness in our community.”
(Contact Marnie Cook at email@example.com)
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