While millions of Americans sit in front of their TV to watch the ball drop in New York City’s Times Square tonight, Collin Pina and Heather Rosete will be sitting in their car somewhere in Rapid City, trying to stay warm.
Temperatures in the city this evening could plunge to minus 15, one of the coldest this year, according to the National Weather Service. The lowest temperature ever posted in Rapid City for the month of December was minus 30 on Dec. 30, 1990.
Pina, 46, and Rosete, 40, have stocked their car with hand and feet warmers, blankets, quilts and sleeping bags. The couple, currently unemployed, said this is the first Rapid City winter in which they’re living in a car after losing their home and then the place they shared with Pina’s brother.
They once stayed with the Cornerstone Rescue Mission, Pina said, but didn’t like being separated since the men had their own shelter apart from the women and children’s home.
The couple spends most days inside a one-story brick building on Kansas City Street. The Hope Center, a nonprofit organization established in 2014, provides homeless people with a safe place to stay during the day, as well as assistance that will enable them to get out of poverty.
In 2016, according to the Center, it saw an average of 140 guests come through its doors each day, almost 50 percent more than in 2014.
Safe space and support
On Thursday mid-afternoon, The Hope Center was filled with around 20 people. Some were reading, others chatting and a few playing pool in one corner of the main room. There is no television. Near the Christmas tree that faced Kansas City Street, Pina ate a snack while Rosete sat in a wheelchair that she apparently uses to alleviate a spinal injury.
They've been coming to the Center for years. They talked about its free products and services, including haircuts, laundry facilities, luggage storage, daily devotionals and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Pina attends alcohol and drug treatment three times a week.
Beside the pool table were a closet and clothing racks where people can pick up whatever clothes they need. Pina also mentioned several churches downtown that regularly serve hot meals.
A man in his mid-20s, who declined to give his name, said he likes that the Center's main room is surrounded by windows, which offers a streetside view of downtown Rapid City. The windows also allow lots of sunlight in.
The Center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, except Fridays when it closes at 2:30 p.m. When the doors shut, the young man said he returns to the Cornerstone homeless shelter for the night.
Pina and Rosete, meanwhile, said they often go to the library, which on certain days stays open till 7 p.m. Sometimes, they hang out at Hardee’s, Main Street Square or walk around downtown. Someone recently gave them a Starbucks gift card, so they also can sit at the cafe before retiring to their car, which gets moved around various public parking spots throughout the day.
On Christmas morning, a man whom Pina and Rosete frequently saw at The Hope Center was found dead on the ground in the 200 block of E. Saint Andrew Street.
The death of 69-year-old Alan Jack is still under investigation, but it's “suggestive of hypothermia,” said Sgt. Dan Wardle of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office and a deputy county coroner.
"He came here a lot," Pina said, adding that they last saw Jack at the Center a month ago.
The temperatures in the city on Christmas Day dipped to 4 below zero, according to the National Weather Service. On the same day last year, the lowest was only 10 degrees; the coldest Rapid City Christmas Day ever recorded by the Weather Service was 12 below zero in 1986, said meteorologist Melissa Smith. (The Weather Service records go back to 1888.)
This year, there have been two confirmed county deaths from hypothermia, Wardle said. In January, a 20-year-old man was found dead in a field east of Box Elder after driving his car into a ditch. The other death, also of a man, happened the following month.
Jack was homeless, and investigators still don’t know what brought him to the area where his body was found, said Rapid City Police Department spokesman Brendyn Medina.
Homeless people in Rapid City can often be found in public parks, as well as under bridges and along the bike path at the Greenway. These are the areas police officers will check when the temperatures drop dangerously low, and officers are either dispatched or they voluntarily conduct “cold patrols,” Medina said.
The police department is asking members of the community to call 394-4131 if they see folks who might be at risk of overexposure to the cold.
If a homeless person can stay with a family member or friend, police can give him or her a ride to the home, Medina said. If they have nowhere to stay, they can be taken to the Cornerstone Rescue Mission. But if they’re intoxicated, they’ll be brought to the local detox center since Cornerstone has a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs or alcohol use.
Cornerstone’s main shelter, on Main Street, has 90 beds for men, including 30 designated for veterans. Right now, it’s housing around 125 people because the nonprofit organization doesn’t want to turn anyone away, said its Volunteer Coordinator Deb Berg.
Cornerstone appears to be the only homeless shelter in Rapid City, based on information from law enforcement and nonprofit agencies. In this freezing cold, every available space in the building becomes crucial to life. Sleeping cots are provided for women and children on the building's ground floor, whereas the men are placed in the basement, where the dining area is located.
On New Year’s Day, The Hope Center will be closed for the holiday. When asked where Pina and Rosete intend to take shelter that day, he said their plans were still up in the air.
“I haven’t gotten that far yet,” Pina said.