The Rapid City Police Department is asking temporary shelters that have popped up to take in the homeless this winter to stop operating due to public safety concerns.
In an email addressed to Mayor Steve Allender and the Rapid City Council on Monday, Police Chief Karl Jegeris said the pop-up shelters unintentionally encouraged drinking among people with substance abuse problems since they had no policies that barred drinking.
“I felt they were creating more harm than good with their efforts,” Jegeris wrote in the email that the police department shared with local media, “due to enabling and indirectly encouraging our city’s at-risk inebriated homeless population by providing a false sense of security by offering to locate and provide warmth, which could encourage continued drinking.”
Jegeris’ worries include the eruption of violence at the shelters, inappropriate contact between men and women, as well as people going back out in the cold drunk, the police chief said in an interview Tuesday.
“This effort feels good for those that have been volunteering,” he said, “but in the end, if you look at it from the public safety standpoint, it’s actually doing more harm than good.”
Fifty-four-year-old Connie Red Nest, who was found dead by an Interstate 190 bridge on Sunday, was among the people who stayed at a pop-up shelter Friday night, Jegeris said. Her partner, 58-year-old Ernie Evans, was also found dead nearby. Their cause of death won’t be available for another couple of weeks, but authorities suspect hypothermia.
The Friday shelter, located in a church basement, housed people who were drunk, brought alcohol inside and created disturbances that prevented people from resting, Jegeris said.
“That actually exposed that group to greater harm this weekend, and we had tragic results with a death that, as I would say, had a very direct correlation to the sheltering,” he said.
His email to the mayor and city council mentioned pop-up shelters organized by Cathie Harris, who runs the local aid group RV Ministry.
Temporary shelters began appearing in town after One Rapid City, a local organization, called a meeting Jan. 4 to come up with solutions to the lack of an emergency shelter after a homeless man was found dead on the ground Christmas morning. An autopsy showed the 69-year-old died from hypothermia due to exposure.
The pop-up shelters opened their doors on different nights, including Canyon Lake United Methodist Church on Jan. 12 and First Presbyterian Church on Jan. 15.
If the shelters provide a regulated environment, which doesn’t allow drugs or alcohol, the police department would “be very supportive” of their work. Otherwise, Jegeris is asking well-meaning members of the community to help out established nonprofit groups like the Salvation Army, Youth & Family Services and the Cornerstone Rescue Mission, the city’s lone overnight shelter for the homeless. (The Mission has a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs or alcohol.)
Mayor Allender, in a written statement Tuesday, said he supports Jegeris’ position on the pop-up shelters at the same time that local leaders are working on long-term solutions.
“While temporary efforts may be well-intentioned and heartfelt, they can result in tragic consequences when they are ill-equipped and are not accompanied by the resources, services and personnel needed to address the many issues that surround the homeless.”
The Pennington County Health Facility, slated to open this summer, and the Rapid City Collective Impact’s proposed Transformation Center would tackle the cause of homelessness rather than just treat their symptoms, Allender has said.
Meanwhile, people who need shelter amid the freezing weather can contact the police and they’ll be assisted with finding a warm place to stay, Jegeris said. Even if the Mission or the county detox facility aren’t able to take in people, “they will always make sure no one is left out in the cold.”
Cathie Harris and One Rapid City declined to comment, but said they’ll release a statement this morning in response to the police chief’s letter to the mayor and city council.
The pop-up shelters are closed until further notice, said Ramona Herrington of One Rapid City.