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July 28, 2014 10:15 PM

No Easy Answers

Sioux Falls, SD

Violence stemming from drinking in city parks has been making headlines.  But behind those headlines is a story of unsolved social problems.

From addiction to homelessness, mental illness and criminal activity, evidence that Sioux Falls has a bigger issue on its hands is front and center, right off busy Minnesota Avenue. 

While the City considers whether to ban alcohol in two more parks, others say that won't solve the problems-- just kick the beer can down the road.

It doesn't take long for our news cameras to capture problems at Van Eps Park.  Police are here on a daily basis for such problems as public urination, vandalism and fights.  There was even a stabbing during a fight over a cigarette. 

"An injured party who had multiple lacerations to her face and forearm I believe, received from a knife," Sioux Falls Police Captain Greg VandeKamp said.

The complaints over illegal activity at Van Eps Park and Tower Park over on Main Avenue have everyone from police to the city council taking up the issue.

"We can close it.  We can take beer out of it.  We can do whatever we want, but there will continue to be a group of folks who will continue to live their lives this way and we can't just shove them down the road and hope they go away," city council member Michelle Erpenbach said.

"This is actually a community of people. They are socializing; they are neighbors.  They are friends.  It's a green space they're utilizing in order to have time with their friends. Some of them just happen to have a substance abuse issue that also goes with that," Stacey Tieszen said.

Tieszen is Minnehaha County's Coordinator for the Homeless Advisory Board.  Tieszen says this group is being unfairly singled out for problems that happen all over the city.

"People like to drink. Everyone likes to drink.  You can't just say this is an issue because they're homeless or poor. People like to consume alcohol. It's legal," Tieszen said.

"It's not drinking that's the problem; it's the actions that come along with the drinking.  That's where I'm having a problem and I think the community too," Sarah Stands, a mother of three, said.

Stands lives right across the street from Tower Park.  While not as many people may be noticing what's happening here as Van Eps Park, Stands says it's just as big a problem.

"I've seen fights, literally people beating the crud out of each other.  I've seen people so intoxicated they had to scoot on their butt across the street and this is a pretty busy avenue," Stands said.

"This is the only place I know that people can congregate, visit one another.  There are relatives here; friends, acquaintances just to have a good time," 62-year-old Ralph Eagleman said.

Eagleman came to Sioux Falls three months ago from the Rosebud Indian Reservation, looking for a better life.

"It is difficult to find a job because I have no transportation and I don't know how to go about getting bus tickets," Eagleman said.

Eagleman says he keeps his drinking under control, but sees the problems alcohol causes here.

"Yeah, I see the police here and some individuals crash out on the ground or on tables like that individual over there.  I met him; his name is Monk.  They're really nice people. But a lot of nice people are alcoholics," Eagleman said.

Eagleman says often drivers on Minnesota Avenue yell out to people in the park as they go by.

Angela Kennecke: What would you like them to know?
Eagleman: To have respect.  To people that go by or come to work, to respect the people; the community here.

The city council will be deciding next month on an alcohol ban for the two parks, if it's approved by the parks board.  The County is also planning to put up a chain-link fence at Van Eps Park because county employees park their cars nearby.  Yet all these efforts may do little to contain the social ills brought into focus here.

"I think they will find another place.  Down by the river, behind trees, or there are other parks," Eagleman said.

"Let's figure out what happens with the next spot before it becomes a location everyone is concerned about," Tieszen said. 

The County's Project Safe Home gives 33 chronically homeless people a place to live and the Catholic Diocese new homeless shelter will have room for more than 100.  The last homeless count in Minnehaha County was 729.  We should add that not all people gathering in the parks in question are homeless.

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