Monday, April 21, 2014
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Communities debate location of homeless shelters

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This temporary Salvation Army shelter must close in April and find a new location to house homeless people during the winter months. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
It's a national goal to end homelessness in 10 years. Boards and committees and coalitions have formed all over the United States to tackle the problem of homelessness. Smaller communities around the region are also having those discussions. In Sioux Falls, several organizations that help the poor are being moved out of downtown and into one neighborhood. Except the new neighbors don't want them around. The Mayor says services need to be together. Neighbors say, fine, but not here. And the advocates for the homeless are running out of money to fight their cause.

Sioux Falls, S.D. — On one of the first cold nights of the season, it's about 15 degrees outside while volunteers are setting up cots in a Salvation Army gymnasium. Pillows, sheets and blankets are piled high in a corner. Salvation Army Maj. Paul Duskin directs the set-up. He is passionate about providing a place for the homeless to sleep on these cold nights.

"We think the need is very dramatic. With the idea of protecting people from the loss of life or limb during the winter. Those who have been drinking are the most susceptible to that happening because they aren't so aware of how much danger they are," says Duskin. "This shelter is the only one who will accept someone who has been drinking alcohol."

There are other shelters in town but they have a zero tolerance for drinking. At the Salvation Army shelter guests are required to take a Breathalyzer but it's more for record-keeping than to enforce a policy. That's a change. Last winter if you were drunk you were turned away.

This is the second winter the Salvation Army has set up cots in its gym. In its first 10 months, more than 400 people stayed here.

Neighbors were never notified the Salvation Army was going to use it's building as a shelter. Ted Haggar, who owns the grocery store across the street, says a slow, subtle change came to the neighborhood. He talks about reports of people urinating in yards, kids being panhandled for money on their way to school or a nearby park. Haggar says people were often afraid to get out of their cars and walk into their homes. He wants the shelter moved somewhere else. Haggar isn't convinced the intoxicated people will even go into the shelter this year.

"They're saying come on down here and you can stay the night and then when they get there they're too drunk, so goodbye. Then they were out in the neighborhood and there was a lot of foot traffic, a lot of walking around," says Haggar.

Robert Everson is one of the homeless people who depends on the Salvation Army shelter. He's lived on the streets for about 16 months. He says he takes day jobs when he feels like it and when he's sober.

"I got drunk yesterday morning," says Everson. "I went to sleep 3:30 p.m. yesterday afternoon and woke up at 8:00 a.m this morning. That's how hammered I was. I decided not to drink nothing today."

Everson sits at the Salvation Army shelter with a bowl of hot soup and a sandwich in front of him.

He says he won't come to the shelter drunk because he doesn't want the people who help him to see him that way. So he has another place he stays when he's been drinking.

"I slept in a camper somewhere here in town. Just jump a fence. It's kind of illegal but I won't say where it was because I don't want it going all over town because somebody else stays in there too," says Everson.

If Everson wants to stay at the Salvation Army shelter this time next year, it'll be somewhere else. The neighbors were successful in getting the shelter moved. This is the last winter it can operate. The Salvation Army has another location in mind to set up cots but they won't say where. Many homeless people come to Sioux Falls because there are day jobs available. Competition for the good ones is fierce. About 70% of the homeless population works says Melanie Bliss, Sioux Falls Homeless Coalition executive director. She says most homeless people know how to work the system and are well taken care of if they keep moving from one intake center to another.

"People come from emergency shelters and they have no place to go because there simply is not enough affordable housing in Sioux Falls at a price that people can afford to live in," says Bliss.

In Sioux Falls, a two bedroom apartment costs nearly $700 per month. For someone to afford that, it's estimated they have to earn about $12 an hour.

They have no place to go because there simply is not enough affordable housing in Sioux Falls at a price that people can afford to live in
- Melanie Bliss, Executive Director Sioux Falls Homeless Coalition

Bliss says there are success stories. Two trailer parks were recently shut down and the 29 families who lost their homes were relocated throughout the city.

"They are not together in a pocket of poverty. The children are in schools all over Sioux Falls. The children are successful in school. The esteem of the parents are going up," says Bliss. "Things are going well because they got out of that extreme substandard housing. That needs to be a goal. Permanent housing throughout the city."

Bliss wants landlords to offer a few apartments for low rent throughout the city. Minneapolis has a similar program to quickly get people out of the shelters and into permanent homes.

She says it'll work here if the city will support it. Mayor Dave Munson supports the concept but with it he wants people to be trained in how to live on their own; simple things, he says, like vacuuming or not dumping grease down the drain and not destroying the walls. Munson says there is a fund available for landlords to be reimbursed if their apartment is damaged.

"There's always going to be the homeless among us, that's just going to happen," says Munson. "But we want to cut it down so people can be self sufficient. That's the goal. I think people really want to be self sufficient." Munson admits while there is the political will to solve the homeless problem, there isn't much money. The homeless coalition may have to close down because of lack of funding.

And then there's another other problem. Residents and business owners often don't want homeless people hanging around.

The homeless coalition in Fargo, ND volunteered to move its shelter to the edge of the city because of downtown development issues. Officials there say the city embraced the idea and are now zoning around the shelter's new location.

City officials in St. Cloud recently passed an ordinance banning any shelters from opening downtown. Advocates there are left wondering where to go.

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