In cities and towns across the nation, homelessness is on the rise. In Rapid City, government officials and nonprofits are trying to mitigate this trend with the county’s soon-to-open Restoration Center and Rapid City Collective Impact’s proposed One Heart Center. But to truly understand homelessness, one must first understand its cause. Over the past few weeks, one reporter traversed Rapid City to speak directly with the town's homeless about the life events that put them on the streets. These are their stories.
Sandra Gayton and Thomas LeBeaux
Sandra Gayton, 51, used to have an apartment. She used to have closets of clothes, cupboards of food and hot showers, too. But as she sits on a bench across from Tally’s Silver Spoon in downtown Rapid City on the second day of spring, the bright afternoon sun warming her back, she says she has little other than her boyfriend, Thomas LeBeaux, 62, and hope.
“Living on the streets is rough,” she said. “It’s sad. There’s not much food. There’s no shower. It’s cold.”
Gayton’s mother died when she was just a child, living on Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Raised by a foster family in Rapid City — her last name a vestige of that time — she graduated from Horace Mann Elementary, North Middle School and Central High before moving to Aberdeen for work.
Gayton was a cleaner at a hospital there until she was 35, then moved to Yankton to work at the Human Services Center for five years. She returned to Rapid City in 2011 and worked part time at Ellsworth Air Force Base as a dishwasher and cleaner for six years. Then, they let her go. She searched for a new job but found nothing.
“You’ve got to be a qualified cleaner or a professional to have these jobs in town,” Gayton said of Rapid City. With little money saved, she eventually ended up homeless.
“I’ve been walking around the streets with nothing,” she said of the past couple years, adding that she doesn’t receive Supplemental Security Income, or social security. Gayton has stayed with friends, at the Cornerstone Rescue Mission’s Women and Children’s Home and at the Crisis Care Center for short stints.
“I can’t find any relatives or family to take me in or family that needs me,” she said. “When someone comes around and needs me for something like babysitting or cooking or cleaning then I think I will have money to be off the streets.”
But her true home of late has been a makeshift shelter in Baken Park crafted by and shared with LeBeaux. Each night, Gayton and LeBeaux bundle beneath about a dozen quilts to stay warm. They married more than three decades ago on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where LeBeaux was born, but the state wouldn’t recognize the marriage license. So for now they simply “cohabitate,” LeBeaux says. Besides, if they got married, LeBeaux's Supplemental Security Income benefits, which he splits with Gayton, would be cut.
“I don’t cheat on her, and she doesn’t cheat on me,” LeBeaux said of their arrangement.
They like it outside, and with spring’s sporadic arrival underway, their living situation will only improve, keeping both away from the shelters, they said. Their worn faces failed to dampen a pair of toothless grins as LeBeaux talked about watching the birds each morning and listening to the train’s bellow each night from their shelter.
“She likes railroads. Trains,” he said. “We wave at them when they go by.”
Joe One Feather
Joe One Feather’s mother had diabetes. His father, cancer. Now, as he sits on a shaded bench a mile north of their final resting place, he says he has both.
“Cancer kicked in on me in 2013,” One Feather, 58, said in mid-March. “The medication I take slows it down. It doesn’t take it away or cure it, but it slows it down.”
Still, One Feather says there are moments in the day when he begins to fade.
“I get kind of weak sometimes,” he said. “But I just got to keep going forward. I can’t let that stop me.”
Before those problems, One Feather had a house, wife, family and a steady job. Originally from Standing Rock Indian Reservation, One Feather said he moved to Rapid City in 1985 and began working at the Federal Beef Processors plant, now the site of Founder’s Park. When the plant burned down in 2002, he found work as a carpenter with a local construction company.
“I can build a house if I want to,” he said. “But I’m getting old now.”
When he lost that job, he struggled to find something else. Then, One Feather started drinking.
“Sometimes I would turn into an alcoholic,” he said. “A bad one.”
Eventually, his wife left him and returned to her family in Pine Ridge.
“Finally, I just gave up on it,” he said of searching for work and paying for his apartment on East North Street. One Feather has been homeless since September 2016.
“It’s hard out here sometimes, but once you get used to it, it’s OK,” he said of life on the streets.
On the bitter cold nights, he goes to the city/county detox center. He also stays at the mission occasionally, or at his brother’s apartment in Star Village. But recently, he’s been sleeping near the Journey Museum in an alcove shielded from the wind. Four sleeping bags and four blankets get him through the night.
One Feather hopes his situation may soon change. He’s waiting to hear from the government about his appeal for Supplemental Security Income. He’s been rejected two times but heard from others that luck often strikes on the third appeal. Each appeal takes about six months, he says.
If approved, he may go back to Standing Rock, where his four children — all of them in their 30s — live with their families. But for now, One Feather is simply waiting to hear about his appeal while doing his best to stay sober.
“They invite me to go back, but it’s me,” he said of returning to the reservation and his family. “I like it around here. My parents are buried here.”
Katherine Backus, 23, has a knack for remembering dates. She can recall the exact day she left her mother's home and moved in with her adoptive parents, Oct. 29, 2002, or the day she legally became a member of their family, Oct. 3, 2003.
She can recite the date of her first night at the Cornerstone Mission, Dec. 14, 2016, the day she left it for Hot Springs, Dec. 21, 2016, and the day she moved into an apartment in there, Jan. 3, 2017.
But it’s the more difficult times like first being diagnosed with autism, or the abusive episodes with her ex-boyfriend, or the time she lost her temper and hit him in public, leading to a domestic violence charge, when she leaves out exact dates.
Originally from Sioux City, Iowa, Backus has spent most of the past two and a half years in Hot Springs, she said. Up until last October, most of her time was spent with her ex-boyfriend. Then, they broke up.
“That’s when I finally had enough of him taking my money and using it for drugs,” she said Wednesday from the mission’s back lot. “He was very mentally, physically and verbally abusive to me, constantly putting me down, playing mind games with me, doing things where my body hurt the entire day.”
Two years ago, he put her in a “backbreaker” wrestling move known as the “Walls of Jericho.” As her chest lay on the ground, he squatted over her, pulling her lower back and legs backward and toward her head.
“I’ve had back pain ever since,” Backus said.
Things eventually came to a head when, during an argument in her boyfriend’s family home, he barricaded her in the bathroom.
“He would not let me out.” After that, “I pretty much had to leave,” she said. “I was tired of feeling worthless.”
Backus arrived at the mission on June 2, 2017, for the second time following that incident, before eventually returning to Hot Springs. There, she found an apartment. A fiance, too.
“My fiance absolutely thinks the world of me, and I think the world of him,” she said, adding that her temper has cooled and she’s begun taking her medication for autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression more regularly since they met.
But on April 1, Backus returned to the Mission after losing her apartment. It’s the first time since they got engaged last November that they've been apart, and she hopes to return to him and Hot Springs by June or July, with monthly visits in between.
In the meantime, Backus plans to find work in retail or food service and save money so when she returns, they can get an apartment together. Her fiance is currently unemployed and lives with his father, she said.
“As long as I can do the job, it doesn’t wear me out and it doesn’t make me ache and hurt my pains too bad,” she said, “I can do it.”
In 2011, Vini Dillon, 52, walked into the hospital for a simple outpatient surgery on his gallbladder. Two weeks and a septic infection later, he stepped out into the dry plains air exhausted.
Nonetheless, he was at his job at Western Buffalo Co. the next day, a job he’d had for a decade. Almost immediately, he noticed something was different. They started “cracking the whip” on him, he said from the seat of his walker in the backyard of the Mission in early January. Feeling disrespected, he waited for his next paycheck then quit.
“I haven’t been back,” he said. Unemployed, Dillon returned to his hometown on Rosebud Indian Reservation, enrolled in college and completed the first semester. Then, he got methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a bacterium that causes infections in different parts of the body.
Since then, Dillon’s life has been a series of health complications, he said. He’s been diagnosed with osteonecrosis — or as Dillon calls it, “brittle bone disease” — and has had knee, hip and shoulder replacements as a result. His appendix ruptured a while back and just recently, he had abscesses removed under his armpit and molar. Restricted to a wheelchair for much of the past seven years, he now has diabetes.
“I’ve heard miracle man several times from different doctors,” he said.
When he was working, Dillon, unmarried and without children, helped provide for his sister and her children. Now, he’s become such a burden that his family can’t help him.
“Coming to a place like this and having to humble myself and ask for help has been a big deal for me,” he said. “It’s been very surreal losing your body.”
Yet, he remains upbeat.
Last year, he was in a wheelchair, something doctors told him would always be the case. Now, he leans on his walker just slightly as he ambles across the mission’s back lot. Last year, his right arm could barely move. Now, he shakes it and grins.
“I’ve been through the wringer, but you know, I’m still here,” he said. “No matter what, I’m smiling at life.”
Lately, he’s been searching for housing and hopes to be on his own again soon. He’s been saving most of his monthly disability check and the mission said they’d help him with the security deposit and first month's rent. A wide smile stretches across his face as he talks about being independent again.
“Our bodies are wonderful, miraculous things,” he said. “People take it for granted. I’m just so happy that my body’s back. I never felt this kind of thing about it. I’m gonna live. I’m gonna have a life. To get out on my own is a big deal, you know?”
Update: On Friday, Dillon moved out of the mission and into a one-bedroom apartment in north Rapid City.
Tiffany Big Fire
Tiffany Big Fire, 41, sat on a cold, hard metal folding chair last week, dragging from a bummed cigarette intermittently as she waited for dinner at the Mission. She stared out toward the gray sky blankly. Tonight would be the first night she ever spent at a homeless shelter, she said. It was also her birthday.
“I’ve kind of lived all over, but I never did go to a mission,” she said quietly. She wasn’t nervous or apprehensive. “I’m sad.”
Just a few months ago she was living in Winnebago, Neb., with her husband and near her 21-year-old daughter. She had lived in Winnebago for the past seven years, she said, working as a waitress at a casino.
But just recently, her marriage fell apart. Her husband stayed in their house while she headed west to her brothers' home in Porcupine, S.D. Just a two-bedroom house, Big Fire said it was overcrowded even before she arrived, with her brother, his wife and their children crammed in one room and two other brothers, one with a girlfriend, occupying the other room and living area. So after a brief respite, she continued west to Rapid City.
“There’s more opportunities here than there is down there,” Big Fire said, comparing Rapid City to Porcupine.
She arrived in town a week ago and was crashing at friend’s apartment while looking for work. But when it started causing problems between her friend and the landlord, she decided to leave.
“I don’t want her to lose her home,” Big Fire said.
She’s applied for positions at a few area casinos and restaurants by Rushmore Mall as well as some temporary housekeeping jobs but has yet to hear back. Once Big Fire finds something, she hopes to save money, get her own place and start anew.
“I just came here looking for work,” she said.
John Red Paint
Fifteen years ago, John Red Paint, 28, ran away from a broken home.
“My dad was an old Marine. He used to beat up my mom,” Red Paint said recently from a curved, concrete bench on Main Street. “He used to beat on us, too.”
Eventually, the abuse not only drove him from Pine Ridge; it drove him and his seven brothers to alcohol. Of all the boys, he’s the only one still alive, Red Paint said.
His father is dead too, killed by his mother two or three years ago, he said. The exact timing is hazy, and Red Paint doesn’t seem interested in digging to find the answer. His mother is in prison now and his five sisters are still on the reservation, he adds. He doesn’t go back there anymore.
“Why should I go back there?" he said. "People die down there, and people don’t even care.”
Now, he calls the streets of Rapid City home.
“I don’t mind it because this place is not like the rez, you know? The rez is hazardous for your health, man. At least up here I’ve got friends and family.”
Red Paint stays with uncles and aunts from time to time but avoids the mission. “Too much bodies there,” he said.
He knows most of the homeless community in town and doesn’t lament his life. But lately, he’s been considering heading south.
“I was thinking about going to Virginia. I guess it’s nice down that way,” Red Paint said, adding that his sister-in-law said she could give him a place to stay. It’s a small town, though he’s forgotten the name. The name doesn’t matter as much as the idea anyways, he said.
“Get that ticket and get out of this town.”
The sheet of ice covering an outdoor swimming pool at Black Hills Harley-Davidson thawed just in time for hundreds of people to take the Polar Plunge.
Recent snowfall and below-freezing temperatures contributed to the brisk atmosphere for the 2018 Rapid City Polar Plunge, an annual fundraiser for Special Olympics South Dakota. Plungers jumped into a pool of 40 degree water on Saturday in the parking lot at Black Hills Harley-Davidson.
A total of 390 plungers entered this year’s event. Hundreds more friends, family and Special Olympians of all ages — some bundled in winter coats, others dressed in costume — attended to cheer on the plungers. Participants raised more than $90,000.
The 2018 Polar Plunge marks the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics South Dakota, and it marks the 30th anniversary of Law Enforcement Torch Run, according to Todd Bradwisch. He works for Special Olympics South Dakota as the vice president of the Law Enforcement Torch Run.
The Polar Plunge is presented by Law Enforcement Torch Run, and local police and sheriff’s department employees were a strong presence at Saturday’s fundraiser. While some staff members provided security, other employees and officers from the Rapid City Police Department, Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and the South Dakota Highway Patrol raised money and jumped into the water.
This is the third consecutive year Black Hills Harley-Davidson has hosted the plunge, and this year it partnered with J & L Harley-Davidson in Sioux Falls to create a friendly competition between the two stores.
“Rapid City is one of the first communities (in the state) to have a Polar Plunge,” said Bradwisch, who praised the support of Black Hills Harley-Davidson and co-owner Jim Burgess. Burgess has a son who participates in Special Olympics.
“All the money stays in South Dakota,” Bradwisch said, adding that 2,100 athletes take part in Special Olympics South Dakota.
Specifically, Polar Plunge proceeds benefit two local Special Olympics programs, Rapid City Storm and Rapid City Flame.
Rapid City Storm is a program for Black Hills Works clients and is one of the two biggest Special Olympics delegations in the state. Rapid City Storm gives more than 300 athletes from Black Hills Works opportunities to enter local and state competitions.
Rapid City Flame is for children and adults who have intellectual disabilities and who live in the Black Hills and its surrounding communities. More than 150 athletes in Rapid City Flame can participate in local and state competitions.
For more information about Special Olympics South Dakota, visit sosd.org.