The face of homelessness in Rapid City is Native and middle-aged.
That population is also refugee, preferring to live on the streets of Rapid City to reservations where life is made more difficult by artificially imposed cultural and political norms, inside and out.
Alcohol is often a factor though the presence of alcohol veils a harder truth: The population that suffers most from homelessness would be facing a blindingly difficult set of circumstances, with or without alcohol.
In my 15 years taking care of our special needs daughter, many of them when she was living on the street, I met the homeless, the helpless, the disenfranchised. The effort it takes to keep a marginalized person off the street is profound. Using all of my influence and resources, I could just find support for her outside my own home, where she would not live.
A set of unimaginable circumstances led to her relief, at least for now. In 2010, her husband, Mike, was parked at a stoplight when his work vehicle was hit from behind by a guy in a dually, texting on his phone. No skid marks. Just 45 mph into the back of fully loaded van. The van blew up. Mike was badly injured. But the injuries were internal and hard for the hospital staff to work out.
Mike’s injuries were made even worse by the emergency room personnel who saw him. He was Native, a former police officer from Pine Ridge, and he was “covered” by the Indian Health Service (IHS). People at Rapid Regional did some minor work then insisted Mike be transferred to IHS for further evaluation. His neck was severed at the top of his spinal column. No one did imaging or took other action to find out.
At IHS, Mike was given ibuprophen and told he’d be fine. It’s one of the obstacles for the homeless; not many people take homeless people seriously. Institutional racism and cultural norms work to defeat less-than populations at every turn.
Mike wasn’t fine. An insurance agent wrote Mike a $500 check, which he accepted. It’s another obstacle; many Native people and homeless people have little positive experience working in the system and are easy prey for institutions like insurance firms hoping to cut corners. I called a good lawyer, who got the check under control but drop-kicked the case to another firm. The lawyer I called was Native. The lawyer who took the case was not.
Native people working in professional capacities are often faced with overwhelming demand from “home.” It’s exhausting to be a fully successful professional and find yourself carrying the expectations of both your own community and the interface community around you. Mike was an Indian so he must need an Indian lawyer is the expectation, both in the Native community and in the larger world.
With the settlement money, Mike bought my daughter a home, vehicle and furniture and a 20-year annuity that paid $600 per month. When Mike lay dying in 2013, I had to petition the 7th District Court so I could handle his affairs, temporarily, to protect my daughter and her interests.
Even with these layers of assistance, including an annuity in a special needs trust, a home generating some income in a special needs trust, and her SSI, she still struggles to find safe harbor.
Imagine facing all those obstacles and not having a dad or a functional family, institutional support, or a foundation of community or personal expectations to support your assertions of humanity.
The homeless population is middle-aged and Native: Life-expectancy is 45 years.