Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum addresses the city’s homeless task force on Oct. 24, 2022, in Carnegie Town Hall in Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Street teams of social workers and volunteers would be the first to respond to panhandling and loitering if the Sioux Falls City Council heeds the advice of its homeless task force.
The task force met Monday for one of its final meetings before pitching its suggestions to the council.
The group emerged earlier this year to discuss ways to manage and respond to the issues tied to a growing homeless population in South Dakota’s largest city. City and police officials have fielded a host of complaints about panhandling at some busy thoroughfares, for example.
Also a point of concern: property values and safety near the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House, a shelter that opened in 2014 and has drawn criticism from the public.
The task force, composed of city officials, community leaders and other stakeholders, has explored a range of options since its first meeting over the summer.
Supplanting police officers with social workers for a two-year pilot project was the first consensus recommendation outlined Monday night. The idea reflects an approach taken in Rapid City by a group called Journey On, which works to connect people on the street with services, such as shelter care, mental health help or crisis intervention.
The approach is backed by the task force and one of its advisers, Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum.
“That’s something you’ve heard me advocate for is that street team approach, of people getting out in the community, interacting, engaging people where they’re at,” Thum told the task force on Monday.
A street team pilot project would cost $500,000, an amount that would be used to pay a professional partner with experience in peer support with Native Americans – who make up around 70% of the Sioux Falls homeless population – and a connection to the Helpline Network of Care.
The other recommendations with full task force support are:
- A public education campaign, at a cost of $125,000, potentially inclusive of billboards, radio and television ads and a website accessible from the street through a QR code;
- An incentive program to encourage nonprofits to join the Helpline Network of Care, covering membership costs, for around $250,000;
- A joint city/Minnehaha County committee to study options for a “housing first” model, which informed the construction of the county’s 33-bed SafeHome facility a decade ago. Such a model leans on permanent housing as a first step toward addressing addiction and mental illness in the homeless population;
- And a review of the city’s loitering and panhandling statutes, with an eye to updating ordinances where necessary.
The last recommendation is important, said Councilor and task force chair Rich Merkouris, but it was important to the group that more action be taken to address the issue of homelessness in the city.
“It’s not a law-only issue,” Merkouris said.
Merkouris also talked through ideas on which the task force members do not unanimously agree. A new warming shelter, a community campaign on homelessness prevention, and assistance for accessing identification cards remain as potential recommendations.
The next task force meeting is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Nov. 7 at Carnegie Town Hall in Sioux Falls.
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