Darrell Two Crow and Winnie Red Shirt are homeless. They’re cold and hungry too. But their biggest problem on this cool January night is they’re drunk.
The Cornerstone Rescue Mission, the only homeless shelter in Pennington County, has a strict “no entry” policy for intoxicated people. So at about 8:30 p.m. Thursday night, Two Crow and Red Shirt stagger into the Hardee's parking lot at 604 Fifth St. looking to get warm and, if they’re lucky, fed. As they talk, it becomes clear that for Red Shirt, her intoxication may matter little on this night.
After getting into a fight at the mission a while back, she says she was put on its ‘no service’ list for two years, meaning she can’t eat there, like about 150 people do for each meal, or sleep there, like about 100 people do each night.
In an editorial by Mission Executive Director Lysa Allison published Friday, she stated "if someone on 'no services' came to the Mission on a freezing night, and was sober, we would somehow find a place for that person while being mindful of the other guest’s safety."
On Thursday, Red Shirt and Two Crows admitted they weren't sober, leaving them with few options. They could go to detox. But when detox is full, Two Crow said, the choice is simple: go to jail or sleep outside.
“There’s a lot of us that sleep on the streets,” Red Shirt says beneath the street’s slanted yellow light, her right bottom lip swollen and bloodied.
“That’s what we are. We’re the ones,” Two Crow adds.
This night, their problems are relatively minor. It’s 40 degrees, the air is still. Also, Two Crow says his dad has an apartment on the north side of town where, once they sober up, they can crash that night.
But when that’s not an option and the mercury drops below zero, their lives and the lives of others like them are in danger. Since New Year’s Eve, there have been seven nights when temperatures dipped into the negatives, including Tuesday, when it was minus 14.
This past Christmas, a local homeless man, Alan Jack, 69, was found dead of apparent hypothermia on East St. Andrew Street. That night, the temperature dropped to negative 3 and came during a five-day stretch of consecutive subzero nights.
In response to Jack’s death, One Rapid City, a local organization dedicated to tackling community issues in Rapid City, held a meeting Jan. 4 to address the lack of a local emergency shelter.
As a result, over the last two weeks, three separate pop-up emergency shelters have opened their doors on three separate bone-chilling nights. The Club for Boys was first on Dec. 23, then Canyon Lake United Methodist Church on Jan. 12 and most recently, First Presbyterian Church on Jan. 15.
Paul Robinson, director of workshop arts at First Presbyterian Church, stayed at the church with about 20 homeless people on Monday night. From 5 p.m. that night to 8 a.m. the next morning, the church provided its basement space. To his knowledge, it was the first time the church had served as a shelter.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said of the experience. “I just kind of offered to help wherever I could.”
Aside from a warm spot to rest, coffee, juice, water, and food was also provided. Most of the people there were men and some of them were intoxicated, Robinson said. There were no issues.
“These are important because they keep people alive,” he said.
The person truly running the show and coordinating the other two emergency shelters, Robinson said, was Cathie Harris, who also helps run the RV Ministry, a local donation-based group that hands out biscuits and gravy from an RV to the homeless each Sunday morning between 7:30 a.m. and 10 a.m. at the corner of New York and North Third Street.
Harris attended the One Rapid City event on Jan. 5. After a night of much discussion but little action, she decided to tackle the problem herself. She called local churches and worked to get them onboard for the next subzero night.
“There’s a need. These people are my friends, and I wanted to be able to help them,” she said. “I just don’t have time to go to another meeting while people are out there freezing to death. I’m not going to have that happening again.”
Harris provides everything — blankets, drinks, food, cards and a television — while the churches provide space. Area nonprofits like the Hope Center and Salvation Army donate much of what she brings.
Word spreads quickly among the homeless population when a shelter is open for the night, she said, but a volunteer typically drives around the downtown area and to some area fast-food restaurants picking up people who need a place to stay, too.
“It’s kind of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type thing,” she said.
Searching for a permanent solution
In a Journal interview, Rapid City Police Captain James Johns supported the cause but said the ad-hoc nature of the shelters worry him.
“Their heart is in the right place, but they’re assuming some risk. They’re assuming that everything is going to go perfectly,” he said. “Oftentimes, they’re not prepared to deal with the intoxicated subject.”
Johns said the mission and detox facility were more appropriate options.
Harris agreed she was taking a risk but noted that over three nights when she took in over 50 people, many of them intoxicated, she had yet to have a problem. She added that on Monday, when First Presbyterian opened its doors, she’d heard that both the mission and detox facility were full.
“Then, where do you go?” she said. “You might as well just come to the church and sleep on a blanket.”
Anna Quinn, director of the Hope Center and President of the Black Hills Regional Homeless Coalition — a collaborative agency between the numerous area nonprofits that deal with the homeless population — said that as far as she knows, there are no strategic plans or discussions about creating a long-term emergency shelter in the area.
Mayor Steve Allender said he hadn’t heard any proposals for a permanent shelter, either.
“What I have heard is the urgent need for a temporary shelter such as a church or a building with only a floor space for sleeping and that sort of thing,” he said in a Journal interview.
The county’s soon-to-open Restoration Center at 321 Kansas City St. and Rapid City Collective Impact’s proposed Transformation Center just east of that location are the long-term solution, Allender said, adding that the services within both centers will address the cause instead of just treating the symptoms.
The goal isn’t to “make it more comfortable to be homeless,” he said, but to create a more successful system that gets people out of homelessness altogether.
Later, he questioned the timing of discussions about a long-term shelter.
“Ten below (zero degrees) is no more deadly than 10 above so if there’s a need, that need exists every night and not just on the cold winter nights,” he said. “The time to plan an emergency winter shelter would be in the summer rather than on the night it’s 10 below zero.”
For Two Crow and Red Shirt, though, summer is a long ways away.
“I hear them say ‘We do this, we do that.’ But when it comes down to it, they’re not doing nothing,” Two Crow said. “I’m not political, I ain’t in office, but what I see is what I see.”
And while Winnie alternated between romanticizing and decrying the difficulty of living on the street, she had a message for people who simply cast her and the others like her off as drunks.
“We got to drink to deal with this s--- because it’s cold out here,” she said. “A lot of us drink because then we can’t feel the cold. We drink to handle this.”