For nearly three months, Camp Mniluzahan has been providing shelter, warm meals and a sense of community for Rapid City’s homeless population.
“We’re just relatives taking care of relatives,” volunteer Sunny Red Bear said during a tour of the camp on Tuesday. “It is amazing to see the people create a sense of community here, sisterhood and brotherhood, it's just like a family.”
Many of the camp residents became homeless after going through something traumatic and losing love for themselves and from others, said volunteer Hermus Bettelyoun.
“We’re just trying to give that back to them, and show that love and compassion, and giving them some place (to live), and showing that people do care,” he said.
After an impromptu creation on forested tribal land just west of Rapid City, the volunteer and Lakota-led camp has become highly organized with large and warm army tents, a food pantry and mess hall, meal train and transportation systems, and a downtown location for people to drop off or mail in donations from across the county.
The camp does not have structured leadership, strict admission policies, and steps that residents must take to continue receiving services like some nonprofits do. The goal is to keep people alive and safe, treat residents with dignity and avoid criminalization.
The camp centers around Lakota values, communal decision making and mutual aid. Volunteers serve as advocates, offering assistance for homeless people who want it, but not forcing anything on them.
“We’re not a charity,” said volunteer Mark Tilsen. “We’re not an outside Christian group who’s trying to convert these folks and get them on the path to sobriety. If people want to sober up, that's cool, and if people come as they are, we still do our best to care for them and accept them.”
Volunteers are familiar with social services in town and have referred residents to them if they want to work on sobriety, obtaining permanent housing or other goals, said Red Bear, who also serves as director of racial equity at NDN Collective.
“Advocates do not force anything upon anyone but they just say, here's my arsenal of resources, take what you need, let me know how I can help you,” she said. “We hold a safe, welcoming space for them to figure out what it is they want.”
The camp houses between 50 and 86 people a night, said Bettelyoun. It has a core group of volunteers with others helping more sporadically, and hundreds of people from across the country that offer support by donating money and gear.
The camp has also received several grants, including one from NDN Collective, that will ensure it stays open throughout the winter, Tilsen said.
While the camp is led by Lakota people, it accepts volunteers and residents of all backgrounds, Red Bear stressed. It only serves adults but hopes to expand to youth and families in the future and to eventually build tiny homes.
Volunteers asked some residents if they wanted to be interviewed on Tuesday but all declined.
’No one else is doing this’
Creek Patrol members first attempted to create Camp Mniluzahan on Rapid City-owned land near the intersection of Lacrosse and Centre streets on Oct. 16. Camp supporters and police took down four tipis, which officers said were illegally erected.
Police arrested six people, including Tilsen, Bettelyoun and Middletent, who refused to leave. The group is charged with violating three Rapid City codes and breaking either one or two state laws.
Camp Mniluzahan was established Oct. 18 with permission from the leaders of the Oglala, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes, which own the land. The 93 acres is located above Jackson Boulevard and south of the National Guard’s training grounds, just outside Rapid City limits and within Pennington County.
The land was part of the 1,200-acre Rapid City Indian Boarding School property that was owned and operated by the Department of the Interior from 1898-1933. It's one of two old boarding school parcels that the DOI entrusted to the tribes in 2017.
Volunteers view Camp Mniluzahan as part of the Land Back movement that seeks to return land to Indigenous people.
“You can't joke around and say Black Hills, tókša (see you later) because we got a little piece of it back,” Tilsen said. “The very fact that one of the things that we’re doing with our land is to take care of our most vulnerable population kind of shows you the priority and trajectory of that movement.”
Creek Patrol volunteers started the camp because there are gaps in housing options for homeless people in Rapid City, the volunteers said. They said they work with and refer people to the existing resources and have nothing against them.
Some people just feel more welcomed and accepted at the camp, Tilsen said. Others like that they don’t need to provide personal documentation to the camp, that their privacy is protected, Bettelyoun added.
“It’s needed. What we're doing, no one else is doing this,” Tilsen said. “If the city allowed a tent ordinance where we just drop off buddy heaters and propane tanks and just check in on people, that would be another option. If there was some kind of voucher system set up to get people off the streets, at least just for the coldest months, that would be awesome. There's all of these things that could have been done by the city, by the state and other individuals that wasn’t being done.”
Safe Beds at the county-run Care Campus provides a free place for intoxicated people to obtain short-term shelter. It has 30 floor mats for men in one room and 16 in another for women. People can check in once every 24 hours.
People can’t store items at Safe Beds, which closes for cleaning about an hour or two each morning. Sober people are sometimes accepted into Safe Beds during very cold weather to avoid deaths, said Helene Duhamel, spokeswoman with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s literally a stop-gap measure, it's a warming station but it's not a community,” Tilsen said of Safe Beds.
People who are intoxicated and struggling with addiction are welcome to live and store their items at Camp Mniluzahan. They are not allowed to bring drugs or alcohol into the camp.
The Cornerstone Mission is open to men who are dedicated to becoming sober, gaining employment and finding permanent housing. Those who live there must pay a small daily fee or take work assignments with the mission. The mission has a shelter open to women, children and female parolees that focuses on similar goals.
There are sober people who don’t qualify for the Cornerstone programs, and there are times when both Safe Beds and the Cornerstone facilities are full, the volunteers stressed.
“Very rarely do we encounter a circumstance in which someone wouldn’t qualify for assistance from the Mission or the Care Campus,” countered Brendyn Medina, spokesman for the Rapid City Police Department. “Our officers are empowered with discretion to find creative solutions if we can’t immediately identify a safe resource to find a person help if they need it,” such as driving them to a family member or friend’s house.
Camp Mniluzahan being away from downtown means people are farther away from resources but away from the dangers of traffic and liquor stores, Bettelyoun said.
Some people who arrived at camp with addictions have become sober, he said. Some have taken on roles as volunteers, Middletent said, while others have returned to their family members.
“One of the greatest accomplishments is seeing them connect with their families,” Bettelyoun said.
'All you hear is wind'
“It’s real peaceful, it's so beautiful, all you hear is the wind,” Bettelyoun said of the camp. “You hear laughter and joking. It’s something that really warms you up.”
The camp’s entrance is along National Guard Road, a steep dirt road next to the training grounds and behind a residential community off Canyon Lake Drive.
The entrance is flanked by the flags of the Oglala, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes as well as the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. There are also NDN Collective and Land Back flags.
A sign warns people against trespassing, says that masks are required, and provides a phone number for people who want permission to enter.
A short dirt road leads to the camp, situated in a clearing surrounded by trees. Most of the residents remained inside living quarters during the Tuesday visit but some were walking around or inside the mess hall. Volunteers, including some older teenagers or young adults, were spread out around camp.
The camp has a large storage container, port-a-potties and dumpsters that are emptied twice a week, multiple fire pits, an inipi (sweat lodge) and a large shed that serves as a pantry for donated food.
The camp began with four tipis, which are still on site, but now has seven large army tents that are warmer and can hold more people. The tents are surrounded by hay stacks and built on elevated wooden platforms that provide insulation and are heated with wood stoves.
The mess hall is a long army tent where people gather to cook, eat a meal, obtain first-aid and personal protective supplies, and watch movies on a projector in the evenings. Stoves and the thick tent fabric kept the cold and wind out of the shelter on Tuesday.
Power and electricity are provided through generators and solar panels.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is planning on donating a drum and funds to build a water well and shower house, said Bettelyoun. In the meantime, long-term residents are brought into town for showers.
Residents can use food from the pantry to cook their own meals but most days there are hot meals cooked by community members, Red Bear said. Volunteers also use donated money to pick up hot meals from restaurants.
According to its meal train page, the camp has 346 people on an email list representing people who either donated money or are interested in signing up to cook meals. So far $14,504 has been raised for food.
Supplies — including masks, blankets, toiletries, generators, warm-weather clothing and rainwater catchers — are bought with money raised from online donors or profits from sales of Camp Mniluzahan/Creek Patrol clothing and gear. The camp also has an Amazon Wishlist, where donors can directly purchase items the camp needs.
Those Amazon deliveries, any other packages and local item donations are dropped off at Hippie Haven, a store in downtown Rapid City. Donations arrive nearly every day and camp volunteers pick them up several times a week, said store manager Chesca Cedillo.
“There’s a lot of homeless people here in Rapid City so (we are willing to do) anything we can do to help on our end to provide any sort of help, so people can get their basic human needs met,” she said.
“People have been donating from all over the country,” Cedillo said. “I think it’s just because people want to help. It’s a vital coalition effort to provide food, shelter and protection for a lot of our relatives who don’t have housing."
Camp residents are brought to and from town by volunteers driving two large vans from NDN Collective.
“We go out every single night looking for folks … the whole goal is so that nobody freezes to death out there and everybody makes it through the winter,” Tilsen said. But “we don’t make anybody come here,” he stressed.
Vans end up acting as a “free taxi cab service,” bringing people to the camp, Care Campus, motels or to their relatives, he said.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at firstname.lastname@example.org.