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Sioux Falls moves forward with Homeless Task Force recommendations

This story is part of an episode of South Dakota Focus that aired April 27, 2023.

Members of the Sioux Falls Homeless Task Force say they’ve come up with sound policies that will make a difference even beyond the state’s largest city, though perhaps the biggest challenge was narrowing down the scope of their recommendations.

City Councilman Rich Merkouris led the group. He says they focused on areas of consensus. For example: shelter capacity was a contentious topic. However, the task force did not recommend building any additional homeless shelters in Sioux Falls.

“Ultimately we kind of landed in a spot that said, ‘Let’s work on some of these other things and maybe that would help alleviate some of the pressures on the shelters,” says Merkouris.

One of their recommendations encourages more collaboration among organizations that help low-income and homeless people. Kadyn Wittman was on the task force. She worked with the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House that offers shelter and services for poor people, and that experience led her to run for office. Wittman now represents part of Sioux Falls in the state house of representatives. While she wasn’t surprised by much of the information presented to the task force, she says it confirmed her suspicion that most area non-profits work in silos.

“I think about, you know, Southeastern Behavioral Health is not always in communication about which of their clients are staying at the Bishop Dudley House versus St. Francis versus Union Gospel Mission,” says Wittman. “So just kind of realizing that miscommunication and that some of these organizations are offering the same service, but they don’t even know about each other.”

That kind of collaboration can involve sensitive information, so the task force recommends the city help fund the cost of a HIPPA-certified database for organizations involved with the Helpline Center. Since hearing this recommendation last fall, the Sioux Falls City Council has allocated grant funding to support further non-profit collaboration.

Another recommendation calls on the city to foster healthy relationships with homeless individuals and the community. Sioux Falls will have its own street outreach team much like Journey On in Rapid City, operated by South Dakota Urban Indian Health. The two-year pilot program will launch later this year, and it will run in tandem with a public education campaign to help residents better understand homelessness and how to help.

Some task force members had their own experience with homelessness. Terry Liggins is another member of the task force and CEO of The Hurdle Life Coach Foundation, a mentorship program for young people and adults. He’s been homeless twice—once as a child in Omaha when his mother left an abusive relationship, and later as an adult in Sioux Falls when his own relationship ended a year after his incarceration.

“There was someone in my network who was willing to bring me in with grace, with compassion and not cause me to feel worse than I already did being in that situation,” Liggins remembers. “And I think that’s something we can take away from as a community when we’re looking at adults that are in transition and dealing with those insecurities. Shame and guilt does not assist that person in recovering and re-establishing some type of stability and security in their lives.”

Those hoping to combat the shame and stigma connected to homelessness brought another contentious topic before the task force: city signs that discourage giving money to panhandlers. The signs suggest direct support to charities instead. That’s led to a public education campaign–and another recommendation to review local panhandling ordinances.

“People think it’s maybe really generous and caring to hand out some dollars out the window, but the reality is that it’s probably not helping and the individual doesn't really understand what poverty is,” says Rich Merkouris. “Poverty isn’t just a lack of money. Poverty is living in a broken system–broken relationships, broken opportunity, broken education. And so if you just hand out money that doesn’t necessarily heal the brokenness.”

But other task force members like Terry Liggins have a different perspective.

“I think that what happens for people is they get lost in the perception of what is the person gonna do with the money. They’re only going to use the money to further their addiction or some other scheme, and for me, it’s less about what they are going to do with it and more about who I am as a person,” says Liggins.

The final task force recommendation is a partnership between the City of Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County for services that focus on housing options. While presenting the task force recommendations to the Sioux Falls City Council in November, Rich Merkouris pointed to Safe Home, which recently celebrated its ten year anniversary.

“The concept of the Safe Home is let’s get someone into housing, and then let’s start working on some of the other issues they’re experiencing in life,” Merkouris told the council. “Oftentimes the approach we’ve taken historically is saying, ‘Stop drinking, and then we’ll give you a home.' Anyone who understands substance abuse knows it doesn’t work that way.”

Representative Wittman believes housing chronically-homeless people without stipulations can make a long-lasting difference. She also points to Safe Home as a prime example.

“It was founded just over 10 years ago for individuals that were so chronically homeless and chronic addicts that it saved taxpayers dollars to house them instead of putting them in jail every single night, wasting police resources on them, putting them in detox,” she explains. “And what they saw when they gave people housing without stipulations or requirements was that people started to re-engage with their communities.”

Terry Liggins says sheltering an individual first gives them a chance to regulate their nervous system. “From there we’re actually able to work them up the hierarchy into actual recovery support programs, employment, reunification with family members and loved ones,” he says, “but you first have to establish safety and security.”

Of course, all of this has a price tag. The task force is recommending nearly a million dollars in city funds to support the initial four recommendations–and there are plenty of conversations still to be had about where that money comes from and what happens next.

But members of this task force see an opportunity to make lasting change.

“If we can keep up the spirit of change and hope, knowing that hope is that light,” says Liggins, “I’m very hopeful for Sioux Falls.”

Jackie is based out of SDPB's Sioux Falls Studio.
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