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Houseless Relatives: Journey On helps homeless and saves city resources

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

Rapid City is one of several cities around the country that now rely on people with lived experience to respond to people living on the street—rather than law enforcement.

The Journey On outreach team stands out with bright green shirts and hoodies. Six days a week they offer rides, water and food to people without a reliable place to live.

Toby McCloskey is the Director of Operations for Journey On. He calls the people they serve houseless relatives.

“Now the reason why I say they’re houseless relatives is because we’re all home,” says McCloskey. “We’re home where we’re at. We just don’t have houses to live in.”

Rates of homelessness are on the rise nationally and here at home. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reportsabout 1,300 homeless people in South Dakota. The vast majority of them are in Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

McCloskey was homeless in Rapid City for two years. He and other Journey On team members have that experience in common with the people they serve. Those memories can make the job more difficult, but McCloskey says they also drive him to be the help he wishes he had during those challenging times.

“We engage our houseless relatives and let them know that we’re not trying to force a lifestyle change,” McCloskey says. “We’re just there to let you know that there’s gonna come a time when you decide that for yourself. And when you look up, Journey On will be there.”

Credible Messengers

Journey On’s story begins in part with the collective healing initiative in Rapid City in 2018. It was an effort to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the Native American community. Native Americans make up just under nine percent of the state population - but represent nearly 70 percent of the state’s homeless population. That’s according to the South Dakota Housing for the Homeless Consortium.

Dr. Rich Braunstein is a professor at the University of South Dakota and was part of the 2018 collective healing effort in Rapid City. Now, he’s Executive Director of Journey On. Braunstein says Native elders wanted a new approach. Journey On is based on a citizen-level response model that started in New Jersey that involves “credible messengers.”

“There’s no better way to respond than people with lived experience, people that are from the community, people who have experience some of the things that the relatives we work with are going through—either immediately themselves or a close family member,” Braunstein explains.

“You can dispense with all the initial distance that would be present from an outsider coming in. There’s an important element of trust and empathy that goes both ways—that is to say, between our outreach workers and the relatives on the street.”

We first visited Journey On in September. The team members Manny Hernandez and Krystal Rencountre checked in with people, offering rides to the afternoon’s hot-dog feed in a nearby park.

Partway through their shift, they see a homeless man they know bleeding from a cut on his head. He says a man in a motorcycle vest attacked him outside the liquor store up the road. After treating his injuries, Krystal Rencountre calls police dispatch for backup before looking for the attacker. It’s a move she usually tries to avoid.

“We don’t want any of our relatives to get put in jail and go through that cycle over and over again,” says Rencountre. “We wanna be able to help them and try to find them other resources.” But in violent cases like this, she calls backup for the team’s safety.

The man in the vest is still outside the liquor store by the time we arrive. Krystal Rencountre talks with him for a few tense minutes. At one point he gets agitated and steps toward her. A homeless man who knows Krystal gets between them to protect her. Eventually, a patrol car arrives, and the responding officer takes the man in the vest into custody. As we head back to the Journey On Office, Rencountre says encounters like this are becoming more common.

“We stop to every person that’s in crisis so we see this a lot, and because of the respect and trust we have with the relatives, they have given us information that they don’t give other people. Like just now, that gentleman who told us what happened, he does not want to speak to the police officer, but he did tell us what happened.”

A Partnership with the City

Homelessness carries many costs for a community, but some of the biggest involve local law enforcement.

Steve Allender is the outgoing-mayor of Rapid City with nearly 40 years experience in law enforcement.

“By and large, our cost of homelessness in Rapid City is no less than $15 million dollars a year,” Allender said in an interview last fall. “I say that because about 65% of the police force spends 50% of their time on homelessness.”

Allender says that percentage is even higher for firefighters and other emergency responders . But that’s changed since Journey On launched in late 2021. By the following September, Allender was very pleased with Journey On’s impact.

“Certainly within a few months we were seeing dramatic results. This group, Journey On, is literally taking calls away from the police.” Allender said in the first six months of 2022, Rapid City documented about one million dollars in savings to tax payers based on Journey On’s efforts.

Now, nearly a year and a half after the program’s launch, the results continue to impress Rapid City Police Chief Don Hedrick. He says Journey On has handled 12,000 calls for service that would have come to police, which frees them up to tackle other community concerns.

“You know, we’ve had the community knocking on our door asking for traffic enforcement. They want people out in the neighborhoods enforcing school zones and speeding and walk throughs downtown,” says Chief Hedrick. “These are all requests that come to us, and since we partnered with Journey On it’s allowed us to focus on those proactive activities that only a police officer can do.”

That’s a big reason Mayor Allender proposed a major funding increase for the program from the city budget last year. As a non-profit Journey On runs on funds from community partners and grants. It recently received a million dollars from a federal Department of Justice grant to expand staffing.

Bonded By Stories

On a recent ride-along earlier this month, Manny Hernandez was driving with a new team member named Betsy Running Shield. She had just finished training the week before.

In the last hour of their shift, they get a call to transport a man from detox to a local shelter for the night. He’s a familiar face to the team, and they chat along the way. When they clear that call, there’s a welfare check for an intoxicated man at the public library. Hernandez and Running Shield take him to a county-run facility where he can sober up. It’s a cold day with a few snow flurries, which usually means a slower day for calls. We spend the rest of the shift on the road, looking for looking for people who need help and talking about this job’s greatest challenges: burnout and guilt. Journey On offers day and night time shifts. Running Shield says night shifts are more difficult.

“When you get to go home to a warm bed and you just—"

Hernandez cuts in. “You worry about all of them. The relatives.”

“That was my feeling at the end of the night,” says Running Shield, who worked the previous three night shifts. “Because they they were like, ‘Just cruise me around for a little bit!’ And I’m like, ‘I gotta go home!’ and then it feels bad ‘cus I get to go home.”

That guilt comes from a passion for helping the people Journey On team members call relatives.

Krystal Rencountre says anybody can be one crisis away from living on the street. Through tears after our first ride along last fall, she tells us the man who had assaulted someone outside the liquor store asked for her before the police officer drove him away.

“That gentleman wanted to apologize. He apologized to me,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m sorry if I scared you.’ He said, ‘I’m really sad right now. I’m getting evicted and I just lost a family member.’ So he’s just going through a crisis. He didn’t have the right support around him at the time.”

Rencountre is frustrated by how often most people write off panhandlers or the complex nature of homelessness.

“This man right here, you walk by him, you see him holding up a sign. He’s 25 years old. He looks pretty good. He’s healthy. He should get a job. ‘I’m not gonna give him no money. He looks like he can work,'” Rencountre says as we sit in the Journey On van outside their Rapid City office. “Little do you know that that man doesn’t have any documents because he got his backpack stolen. He doesn’t have an ID, social security card, a birth certificate, so he can’t get a job. He wants to live at the [Cornerstone Rescue] Mission, but you gotta pay seven dollars a night to live at the Mission. So how is he gonna get paid if he doesn’t have an ID? He’s gonna stand there. He’s gotta panhandle. He’s got to put himself out there. You know, it takes a lot of courage to stand out there with the sign asking for help when no one knows your story. So Journey On, we ask what their story is.”

Once team members know those stories, Rencountre says they become family.

“I love these people with my whole heart,” she says. “I would do anything for them.”

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