“These are important because they keep people alive.” — Church employee
“I feel they were creating more harm than good with their efforts.” — Karl Jegeris, Rapid City police chief
The emergence of pop-up shelters after a 69-year-old homeless man was found dead outdoors on Christmas Day worries Rapid City’s police chief.
On Tuesday, he sent an email to the mayor and city council that was also sent to the media. In the email, he laid some blame on a woman from RV Ministry for the deaths of a homeless couple found Sunday near an I-190 bridge. Police believe they died from exposure.
According to police, the woman who died had been at her emergency pop-up shelter in a downtown church on a Friday night with 27 or 28 homeless people who were reportedly drinking. The woman called police for help, made a meal for them and closed the shelter early due to the problems.
Police Chief Karl Jegeris said Tuesday pop-up shelters that don’t ban alcohol encourage the homeless to drink and that led to the weekend deaths, an argument that seems speculative at best.
One can only imagine how Cathie Harris of RV Ministry felt when she learned the police chief publicly identified her as one who played a role in the tragedy. Rather than shine a spotlight on someone who devotes her life to helping the homeless and imply she enables drinking by providing comfort on below-zero nights, Chief Jegeris could have offered his support or went to the city council and asked for help in the name of public safety.
Instead, he is doing all he can to discourage pop-up shelters that have helped scores of homeless people since the first week in January.
RV Ministry is not alone. At least two churches have opened their doors to the homeless on freezing nights, including the First Presbyterian Church. Paul Robinson, the church employee who is quoted at the beginning of the editorial, told the Journal in January that about 20 homeless people stayed at the church on the night of Jan. 15. He reported no problems. In the police chief's email to the mayor and city council, he cited no other problems at pop-up shelters.
If that is the case, why is it necessary to shut down every pop-up shelter after problems on one night when the person in charge took action? Also, does the chief really believe those homeless with drug and alcohol problems are better off outdoors than indoors when it is below-zero? Does he really believe those with chronic alcoholism won't drink unless they know a pop-up shelter will be open?
These churches, like Harris, should be commended — not condemned — for helping the homeless. The churches are also meeting a need as on the coldest nights the Cornerstone Rescue Mission, which has a zero-tolerance alcohol policy, is filled to capacity.
Chief Jegeris is duty-bound to be concerned about possible problems at pop-up shelters, but he needs to find a better way to address this life-and-death issue.