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Lessons from a Night of Hope

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

This election season, we've heard much about the robust South Dakota economy. In Sioux Falls, the story is all about growth, innovation, and abundance. And yet: We have a poverty problem.

The Bishop Dudley Hospitality House held its Night of Hope fundraiser this weekend in Sioux Falls. Community leaders slept in the parking lot to raise awareness and funding to help move families to stable housing and self-sufficiency.

Vernon Brown is Associate Vice President of External Affairs for South Dakota State University. He slept out during the Night of Hope and shares his experience

By Vernon Brown

As I ease myself awake from the comfort and warmth of my own bed, the constant sound outside interrupts my thoughts.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

It’s raining! Forecasters predicted the much-needed moisture, but I selfishly hoped they miscalculated because tonight I’m going to sleep outside in a refrigerator box for the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House’s Night of Hope.

The annual event brings awareness to and fundraising for the Sioux Falls shelter. Local businesses sponsor a dozen invited sleepers to leave their luxury for a night.

Like the dampness outdoors, the anticipation of this night chills to the bone, draining me.

As I get ready for work at my new job at South Dakota State University, my wife, Tami, voices what silently worries me: “Are you going to be okay to drive to Brookings after sleeping out?”

I dismiss it with an “I’ll be fine,” but I do have a busy couple of days ahead. It’s homecoming at SDSU – Hobo Week – an irony not lost on me as I prepare for temporary homelessness.

I carry on with my day of meetings in Sioux Falls, but what’s to come still nags at me. I’m making a mental list of what creature comforts to pack.

Finally, I rush home to change into comfortable clothes. I grab my sleeping bag and a ridiculous number of layers for the 41-degree wet cold. I drive the short distance from my home to Bishop Dudley searching for nooks and crannies downtown, wondering where I would settle in if truly homeless.

Night of Hope Devices .jpg
Vernon Brown
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In truth, many of us are only a couple of lost paychecks, a medical emergency, or a bad choice away from financial struggle. In Sioux Falls we love to peddle headlines about the city’s remarkable wealth. Yet half our students qualify for free and reduced school lunches. If you want to deny the statistics, just drive by the shelters, The Banquet, or the food giveaways in Sioux Falls to bear witness to our poverty problem.

Rich or poor, entering Bishop Dudley requires a dose of courage. More people than we want to acknowledge mill around outside waiting for doors to open. When I arrive, one of them calls me out by name. We exchange a handshake, and he introduces himself as Ed. He asks why I’m here. I explain that I’ll be sleeping in the parking lot, under a big tent but outside in a box, nonetheless. Ed laughs. “Not me, and I wouldn’t trade you! I’ll be in there and warm,” he says motioning to the shelter’s brick building.

I enter feeling a little tired and drained, but the staff begins to refill me physically and emotionally just as they do for the guests.

It starts with the physical – a soup dinner – then we get into the emotional: stories from guests.

  • A father, who has a seven-year-old and a three-year-old staying with him here, shares his gratitude for this place. He’s had good jobs and he’s finishing his master’s degree, but his wife’s mental health trauma and the challenges of their oldest child’s autism made him and his children homeless.
  • Two women similar in age and circumstance tell how they never imagined homelessness. Yet, when widowed, family greed and poor-paying careers landed them here. Sadly, these women represent a growing demographic of Sioux Falls’ homelessness.
  • A younger woman, once homeless and a guest, now lives independently and will begin a job at Bishop Dudley, also a growing but more encouraging demographic.

Unfortunately, not all these stories end happily. This shelter bursts at the seams every night, and the root cause rests in mental illness masked with alcohol and drug use. Still, we must take solace in the small victories. They bring hope, even though we all know hope is not a strategy.

Our community needs a strategy.

The Bishop Dudley Hospitality House and other shelters can help with the immediate needs – food, warmth, and a place to sleep – but we must put our heads and hearts together for a long-term solution for these citizens who maneuver the complicated and difficult path of poverty.

I suppose this is where I should tell you how I go outside, roll out my sleeping bag, put my head on the pillow, and stare at the top of the box all night, bothered by the cold, the noise of my neighbors, and pondering how to fix the problem. That’s not my story. I experience a surprisingly good night’s sleep, and like so many of the tenants indoors, I get up the next day and go to work.

I can’t … we can’t … just let this routine repeat and only pay attention to the problem when temperatures plummet. These citizens and the people who care for them need all of us to think regularly about a permanent, sustainable solution. This city, which prides itself on quality of life, needs to make that accessible for all.

Vernon & Madeline Shield.jpg
Vernon & Madeline Shield

P.S.

As a community, we owe much to the brave, hopeful souls who work at the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House. On a personal note, I’m especially proud of their fearless leader and my long-time friend, Madeline Shields.

Like me, Madeline didn’t grow up with much money. We met in college at SDSU in the journalism department and matured professionally as reporters at KELO-TV, creating a strong bond that remains today. She pivoted, using her excellent storytelling skills to help people in poverty, first at The Banquet and now as executive director of the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House. Her empathy and skill in dealing with a challenged population amazes me. She does the work many of us can’t imagine. So, I humbly ask that the rest of us pitch in however we can. Volunteering, checking the shelter’s Amazon Wishlist, or donating cash, no matter how small, can make a difference when put in the capable hands of someone like Madeline and her team.