SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Once again, the City of Sioux Falls will be tackling how to best address the growing homeless population.

Newly elected City Councilor Rich Merkouris and Councilor Curt Soehl proposed a homelessness task force to study the situation and suggest actions that the city can take to curb the rising homelessness situation.

This isn’t the first time the city has taken on the homelessness issue. In 2019, the City of Sioux Falls and the Minnehaha County Homeless Advisory Board commissioned an extensive report from Augustana Research Institute that examined the homeless population.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Councilman Greg Neitzert expressed concern over the task force and what would come of it. He pointed out that the Augustana research that was completed three years ago already had recommendations for the city to take and was unsure if another task force was necessary to do the work that had already been done.

“I think this particular issue, it’s messy, it’s hard and it’s suffered from, frankly a city perspective of benign neglect,” Neitzert said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Not that there [aren’t] things that we’re doing but, frankly, I don’t think that we’ve led on it, and we really should be doing that.”

Councilman Merkouris told KELOLAND News that the Augustana report will be a part of the research the task force will study among talking with nonprofits and organizations that focus on homelessness.

“I intentionally put a small period of time on this task force because I knew we didn’t have to do a bunch of research,” Merkouris said. “We’re not hiring a national consultant, none of that, because that work has already been done. We need to take that work and now identify actionable things from it that the council and administration can support.”

Following the approval of the task force by the City Council on Tuesday, Merkouris said that the next step will be for Mayor Paul TenHaken and the chair and vice-chair of the task force to begin selecting members to research and provide actionable recommendations to the mayor no later than December 13, 2022.

“We want to look at all of those studies and take into consideration The Link, the Veterans Community Project, how the pandemic changed things and then identify some actions or policies that the city and the administration can support it,” Merkouris said.

As our city continues our homeless population will grow if we don’t create the systems to be able to provide those supports.

Julie Becker

The St. Francis House is one of the Sioux Falls organizations that is hoping to be a part of the task force and have a voice in the discussions. Executive Director Julie Becker said that she’s been reaching out directly to the City Council to keep this issue a top priority and is hoping to join the task force to address the growing need in Sioux Falls shelters.

“When we started fading out of the pandemic that we’ve all been facing, we saw a drastic spike in the number of people coming to the St. Francis House needing a place to live,” Becker said. “They either moved here or were released from jail or prison and they needed a place to have a hot shower, be able to get a nice comfortable bed to sleep in, a place of their own and then also be able to help rebuild their lives.”

While Becker is excited about the task force, she said the focus needs to be more on the action that comes from it and not just research on the problem.

“We need to step up,” Becker said. “It isn’t just ‘let’s create a plan,’ we also have to act upon that plan and have the support of the city and the county to have those additional funds to support agencies such as St. Francis House, the Union Gospel Mission, and Bishop Dudley.” 

Both Merkouris and Becker pointed to the lack of affordable housing in Sioux Falls and said that that issue is tied to the growing homeless population.

“It’s not just the lack of affordable housing, it’s the lack of affordable and safe housing,” Becker said.

Becker added that St. Francis House offers guests a master lease program once they leave the shelter to assist in the transition from homelessness to renting from a landlord. The program allows guests to get experience as a responsible tenant while also helping them rebuild trust with landlords in Sioux Falls and provide guests with credible references to find housing on their own.

“As our city continues our homeless population will grow if we don’t create the systems to be able to provide those supports,” Becker said.

The resolution acknowledges the issue of affordable housing in combination with many other factors a person might face that cause homelessness: Mental health, drug or alcohol addiction, poverty, and family breakdown are also considered underlying factors. Merkouris said part of the task force’s goal will be to address each of these issues in attainable actions for the city.

Becker hopes that in addition to those that work directly with the homeless, people who have experienced homelessness will be included in the task force.

“It has to be a diverse group of people that are in the trenches, leadership within our community, and potentially some individuals that have been on the streets who can give us their honest input of what we need to do as a community to be able to build a system that will help the homeless in our community,” Becker said.