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Several community members who help local pop-up shelters criticized the Rapid City police chief Wednesday for blaming a shelter in the recent death of a homeless woman.

Police Chief Karl Jegeris wrote to Mayor Steve Allender and the Rapid City Council on Monday, saying the temporary shelters unintentionally encouraged drinking among people with substance abuse problems since the places didn’t prohibit drinking.

A homeless woman found dead under a bridge on Sunday, Jegeris said, had stayed two nights earlier in a pop-up shelter where alcohol and intoxicated people were found. Jegeris said he had spoken to Cathie Harris, the shelter organizer, asking her to stop the service if the shelters couldn't be regulated.

Allender, in a written statement, said he supported Jegeris’ position on the shelters.

On Wednesday, five women who help the shelters emailed the Journal a joint statement, saying they believed Harris’ work has been misrepresented.

“It is heartless and inaccurate to blame her for the deaths of her friends,” according to the statement signed by Karissa Loewen, Ramona Herrington, Heather Aunspach, Bobbi Jean Jarvinen and Delores Allen.

They helped organize a Jan. 4 community meeting, hosted by the grassroots community One Rapid City, to find a solution to the lack of a local emergency shelter. This was a response to a 69-year-old homeless man being found dead outdoors on Christmas morning. Attendees included Assistant Police Chief Don Hedrick and several members of the Rapid City Police Department.

“Cathie Harris is one person who was willing to do more than just voice ideas at a meeting,” the women's statement reads in part. “She started a warming center with the support of her own networks.”

The women decided to help with Harris’ pop-up shelters since it was an already tangible solution, Loewen said in an interview.

Some of them volunteered at the shelters, whereas others donated food and blankets and washed used blankets, Herrington said.

The women, in their statement, asked the community to work together to come up with emergency winter shelters. They proposed that the community help Harris’ shelters become better, otherwise “immediately put together a viable alternative” until long-term solutions are found.

Jegeris has said that the police, Cornerstone Rescue Mission shelter and the county detox facility can help homeless people find temporary shelter from the cold.

But despite these, the women's statement said, “people are still dying of exposure.”

Loewen said she wanted to continue the dialogue with the police department.

When asked to respond to the women's comments, city police spokesman Brendyn Medina said the law enforcement agency was going to let Jegeris' letter to city officials and Allender's statement speak for themselves.

Harris said Wednesday that she’ll be releasing a statement today.

On Wednesday night, as temperatures dipped below freezing, One Rapid City held a prayer gathering for the families of Connie Red Nest and Ernie Evans. Hers was the body found under the bridge Sunday, not far from the similarly lifeless body of her partner, Evans.

The event organizers said there would be songs, food and a chance to share stories about the couple.

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Cops and Courts Reporter

Cops and courts reporter for the Rapid City Journal from February 2016 to July 2018. Contact her on Facebook or Twitter @tiffgtan.