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Kevin Woster

Kevin Woster

You might not notice just driving past, but that official-looking building at 321 Kansas City St. is more than a brick-walled collective of public assistance.

It’s a “front seat to life.”

At least, that’s what Willie Whelchel, chief deputy of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, called the Care Campus during a recent one-year anniversary celebration.

I like that “front seat” notion. You could also call it a window to the future of downtown Rapid City or a mirror that reflects an image of the comfortable majority in our community and how it treats the least and lost among us.

Whatever the name, for the last 12 months the Care Campus has become a place of safety and possibilities for an assortment of human beings who seemed to have neither before.

“I truly am excited about the progress we’ve made and especially about the progress we are going to make,” said Whelchel. “We’re going to make leaps and bounds.”

The leaping and bounding to come is supposed to take the city away from the vicious cycle of the past, where people of little means and many problems were taken — usually by police officers — into a revolving door of arrests and court appearances and warrants and more arrests and incarceration.

Add a regular mugging, an occasional knifing and the all-too-frequent tragedy of a weather-related-exposure death and you had a system that cost a lot and helped very few. It also disrupted the work schedules of city police officers who often seemed more like social workers than cops.

Care Campus was meant to change that. And it appears that in at least some ways it already has. There were 64,000 admissions to the campus in the first year. Sixty four percent of those were self-admissions by people looking for a safe place to sleep, escape dangerous weather, seek detox programs or find help for a mental-health crisis.

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Thirty percent of admissions were taken there by Rapid City Police officers, who have already felt the Care Campus difference in their schedules.

“We’re not arresting as many people as we used to,” says RCPD Lt. Brian Blenner. “And a lot of times when we are arresting them it’s to help them find resources they can use. Now we have a broader array of tools to help those people out and help them get out of crisis.”

The Care Campus is all about resources, on site or through referrals. And the on-site options will increase when a 64-bed residential treatment center opens on the second floor.

It’s all hopeful stuff. And downtown businesswoman Somer Kingsbury, owner of Who’s Toy House, is hopeful.

“I like the direction we’re heading with it,” she said. “It’s a problem you can never solve entirely, but I think it’s awesome to be offering services we just didn’t offer before.”

Kingsbury says she is respectful toward intoxicated people who come in off the street, telling them that they're always welcome but “don’t seem to be feeling well today.” Then she encourages them to return on a day when they’re feeling better.

“And I’ve never had a bad experience with that, ever,” she said.

There have been bad experiences, however. And one downtown business owner told me last week that he is upgrading door security because more intoxicated people are walking through the building. Others fear the Care Campus will attract more transients and more trouble.

Those are legitimate issues that need to be watched. But we can still celebrate the first year of the Care Campus, an idea that could — if it works — show us to be a community with a brain and a heart.

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Kevin Woster writes a blog and offers radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing kevinwoster@rushmore.com.

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