It's been two years since the first residents moved into a Sioux Falls apartment building designed to house the chronically homeless. The county-run Project Safe Home is taking a new approach to helping those who've hit rock-bottom, by offering them pride in ownership as the first step toward turning their lives around.
After a hard life on the streets, Robert McKelvane finds apartment dwelling very much to his liking.
"It gives me a place to stay. It's safe and secure. It keeps me off the streets," McKelvane said.
McKelvane is one of 33 tenants of the Safe Home; an apartment complex on North Minnesota Avenue for those who've struggled for years with homelessness and addictions.
"Just tired of it, camping outside all of the time, didn't get into the shelters, that much and I heard about this place and came here," McKelvane said.
Stan Yellow Boy has been at the Safe Home from the very beginning.
"I got a nice, big room, a bed, TV, the works. So it's not too bad here," Yellow Boy said.
The Safe Home was met with some skepticism when it opened two years ago because residents are allowed to bring limited amounts of alcohol inside.
"There was sort of a sense of, it's like a big dorm where people are drinking all the time and there's going to be constant fights and that's really not the case," Safe Home Manager Jeff Yarbrough said.
Instead, the Safe Home is proving that by putting a permanent roof over the heads of the chronically homeless, life's other problems, including additions, become more manageable.
"Their alcohol use is reduced. They get healthier. We've even got some folks that have gotten sober. That's a pretty amazing thing for this group of people. This is sort of the far end of the alcoholism spectrum," Yarbrough said.
McKelvane says he's curbed his drinking ever since moving into the Safe Home one year ago.
"You can have up to like five cans a day and sometimes I'll have five cans a day, but sometimes it's just one and everyone varies on that," McKelvane said.
"Rock bottom for a lot of these guys would be death. They would drink themselves to death. So part of what we do by regulating the amount of alcohol they bring in is keep them from dying. That's what we're about is safety," Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough says the success of the Safe Home can be measured in fewer visits to detox and to jail.
"If you have a place to live, you don't get busted for public intoxication," Yarbrough said.
Safe Home residents are especially grateful they didn't have to spend a night on the streets during the bitter cold.
"It's been a little cold, I don't like going outside in this. This is nice," McKelvane said.
Putting down roots at the Safe Home helps the tenants feel more grounded, more responsible and better able to handle life's hardships.
"It feels good because you can say I got something now, rather than just being out there with a sleeping bag. This is all I had to show for it. This is better," McKelvane said.
The Safe Home has a waiting list of 40 people wanting to move in. Yarbrough wants to eventually add more apartments to the building and expand the outreach to those still on the streets.
"There's still a pretty large number of homeless folks out there that don't have a place to live. And they're moving from the warming house to the ERs to the shelters. That's not a way to have people living in any society, I don't think, I think it cheapens our society," Yarbrough said.
Rent at the Safe Home can run up to $500 for some apartments. The tenants pay what they can each month. Those who break the rules, like starting fights, can get evicted. But some are offered another chance to move back.