William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Mon, 17 Oct 2005 06:02:21 -0400


Homeless advocates: Shelters no solution

Knudson among those pushing for housing


Article Published: 10/17/05

In the thin light of the street lamps outside The Banquet, Dennis Nelson
stands by his truck, which is also his home, and traces the root cause of
homelessness in Sioux Falls. To him, it's a failure of the city's will.

"You don't want all of this? You have the power to change it," he said
Thursday night, as guests of the ministry to feed the needy filtered out
from dinner.

Nelson is an informal spokesman for the city's roughly 500 homeless, but
many officials agree with his analysis.

"I really believe that our city just hasn't made a significant commitment
yet to help homeless people," said City Councilor De Knudson.

With the announcement last week that the Salvation Army will reopen its
homeless shelter this winter, the city has a chance to step back and think
about longer-term solutions.

Nelson and many others say a real solution does exist - shifting the focus
from sheltering the homeless to actually housing the homeless.

Some suggest it will be expensive, but others say existing agencies could do
the job with better coordination.

Knudson said the higher cost would be worth it.

"Until the City Council is ready to put a lot more financial resources to
taking a giant step to alleviate the homeless situation in Sioux Falls, I
believe that we will continue to just talk about it," she said Friday.

Temporary answers
For starters, she has proposed using the old Acme Drink Co. building across
Main Avenue from The Banquet for a shelter. The costs of that are unclear,
and the building is scheduled for demolition in 2007, to create parking for
an expanded Main Library.

In the long-term, though, she and many others said the focus needs to shift
toward housing.

That would mean providing modest apartments, with services such as substance
abuse counseling and mental health care. The goal of this "supportive
housing" would be to get clients into a permanent home, after a period of
perhaps two years.

Wanting more
More stable, private housing would be fine with Ron Jorgensen, who became
homeless after his wife died last year. He wears a long beard and claims,
with a twinkle in his eye, to have helped Johnny Cash write the classic
song, "A Boy Named Sue."

He said he stayed in the Salvation Army shelter for two days, but left
because of the crowds.

"I didn't like the environment," he said Thursday while eating at The
Banquet. "I like my own peace and tranquility."

Joseph Thornton sat nearby, and said he is staying at the Union Gospel
Mission shelter for now. He said he has been in town only a few days, having
blown a head gasket on his truck in Fargo and then catching a bus to Sioux

"I'm going to work here until it gets cold," he said.

Asked what services he would like to see for the homeless, he said, "A

Tony Bogart's answer was, "to be treated like a human being."

"There you go," said Judith Bad Heart Bull, who sat next to him. She said
she has stayed at Union Gospel, but did not like the rules.

One of those rules is the maximum stay of five days in the main shelter. At
St. Francis House, the city's only other year-round shelter, the maximum is
about 40 days. Both offer longer stays if the guest enters a treatment or
counseling program.

The problem that many officials and homeless people point out is that for
those who don't enter a program, the only option is often another shelter or
the street - or worse, jail or detox.

"Back in this shuffle that goes around and around. It's a merry-go-round,"
said Melanie Bliss, director of the nonprofit Sioux Empire Homeless
Coalition. She said this population of "chronic homeless" is perhaps 12 to
16 people, but their drain on taxpayer dollars is out of proportion to their

Jail costs $79 a night and detox even more, she said.

"Shelters are not the solution, long term. Permanent housing is the
solution, and that has got to be a political partnership between all kinds
of people," she said.

Jamie Phelps of Minnehaha County Human Services agreed with her estimate of
the chronic homeless population and said it is actually good news.

"We don't have a homeless crisis," he said. He said part of the reason is
that his agency spent $500,000 in 2004 on emergency rent assistance,
preventing evictions that would have made more people homeless.

'One good shelter'
As for the chronic cases, he says cities such as San Francisco and New York
are showing how to solve them with a "housing first" approach, similar to
the local supportive housing proposal. And because it cuts down on more
expensive services such as jails, shelters and emergency rooms, it is less

"A community like Sioux Falls only needs one good shelter that's open to
serving all homeless. They don't need several shelters, because that's only
going to make the homeless problem worse," he said.

But Bliss said it's more complicated than that.

Consolidating the shelters, for instance, would be difficult, because Union
Gospel and St. Francis House have other missions that go beyond shelter and
into transitional housing. Moreover, simply providing housing is not enough.

Heartland House
That is obvious from the experience of one successful supportive housing
program - the Heartland House, for homeless families with children. Tammy
Denning, the assistant director, said the organization's two houses have
room for 35 families, with a waiting list of 75.

She said more than 75 percent of the families leave within two years to
become self-sufficient. But a case manager works with those families two
hours a week, teaching life skills and developing a plan for

"It's terribly expensive to do. Case management is labor intensive and
highly technical," Bliss said.

Minneapolis has a similar program for all homeless, she said, "but
Minnesota's also got higher taxes than we have in South Dakota."

And the program would have to serve more than just the chronic homeless.

There is a large population of people unwillingly staying with friends or
relatives, she says; there are 2,500 households waiting for one of the 1,500
apartments that accept federal housing vouchers.

Thus, the next debate probably will be about money.

Officials such as Phelps said switching from shelter to housing will be
cheaper in the long run. And some on the City Council are open to that

Councilor Kevin Kavanaugh says supportive housing that leads to
self-sufficiency is the key, and that better coordination among government
and nonprofits could fill in many of the gaps in services for the homeless.

"People are just starting now to get serious about it," he said. "I think
there are a lot of agencies that, if we come together, can do a lot better."

That measured approach came into stark contrast with Knudson's urgency last
month during hearings on the city's 2006 budget. She proposed adding
$500,000 for permanent housing for the homeless, and got no support from the
rest of the council.

On Friday, she said she still thinks the city should be providing far more
housing assistance - and right away.

"Obviously, that's an expensive solution, but to me, it's the only solution
in the long run. And to me, as a community, we are merely procrastinating on
this issue."

Reach Ben Shouse at 331-2318

William Charles Tinker

New Hampshire Homeless  / Founded 11-28-99
25 Granite Street
Northfield,N.H. 03276-1640  USA
Advocates,activists for disabled,displaced human rights.