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A new frontier in South Dakota’s fight against homelessness involves using “street outreach teams” to identify and interact with vulnerable individuals in the community and get them the help they need, taking some of that responsibility away from law enforcement.

The effort is an acknowledgment among public officials in Rapid City and Sioux Falls that the origins of homelessness and drug addiction are complex and often melded with mental health issues, and that getting to the root of the problem could have more lasting impact than merely providing meals or temporary shelter.

The street outreach strategy – the top recommendation of a Sioux Falls Homeless Task Force formed in the summer of 2022 – also addresses the reality that Native Americans make up a disproportionate number of the South Dakota homeless population, creating cultural and language barriers in some cases that prevent meaningful intervention, especially when police are first on the scene.

“Law enforcement can be well-equipped and well-trained, but a lot of times for the individuals that we’re dealing with, it’s going to start off with a position of animosity because they view (police officers) as not necessarily the one they want to hear that message from,” said Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum, who has worked with the task force to seek solutions. “Someone who comes from a different background or perspective and has time to build relationships can maybe be the one who steers them toward positive change.”

The latest point-in-time homeless count by the South Dakota Housing for the Homeless Consortium – conducted on Jan. 25, 2022 – put the number of homeless individuals in the state at 1,389, up nearly 50% from five years ago (955 in 2017). The Rapid City count was 458 (up 53% from 2017) and Sioux Falls was 407 (up 26%). These numbers are generally considered “undercounts” because of the challenges of finding and identifying people without residence, especially in the middle of winter.

Native Americans, who make up 8.8% of the overall state population, comprised nearly 70% of the 2022 state homeless count, including 76% in Rapid City. Sioux Falls, where the homeless population is 36% Indigenous, according to the count, has used Rapid City and other communities as a model for “co-response” efforts to get at the root of people’s struggles and funnel them to available services when they’re ready.

A panhandler sits on a sidewalk near a Safeway store in Rapid City. The city has explored new ways to address the issue of homelessness in the community by relying more on individual outreach and less on law enforcement. Photo: Courtesy Rapid City Journal

The Sioux Falls task force has recommended a two-year pilot program for a street outreach team to provide “trauma-informed practices” and “peer support strategies” in coordination with city and county officials and the Sioux Falls Police Department, with an estimated price tag of $500,000 over two years. The proposal comes after increased complaints about panhandling at interstate exit ramps and a greater focus on indigent individuals downtown due to recent development.

“It’s no longer ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” said Rich Merkouris, a first-term city councilor who chaired the task force. “Based on what the committee has seen, we’re still in a position where we’re not overwhelmed to the point of starting to eat away at the core of the community, but people are concerned. After seeing what was being done in other cities, we wondered about trying to engage with these individuals in a different way rather than just have law enforcement called after things became problematic.”

Jon Thum

Thum, who became police chief in the summer of 2021, said people can’t be arrested for holding up signs asking for money. It becomes more problematic when they do so on private property or step into traffic to solicit or receive cash from motorists.

Generally, though, he sees panhandling and public nuisance calls as symptoms of problems that can be addressed with boots-on-the-ground intervention by people with lived experience on the streets or training in social work and cultural outreach.

“It’s easy to look at a lot of problems in society and paint it with a broad brush, but what’s our best chance to make inroads?” Thum said. “People who are more culturally aware of different nuances, and don’t carry the same historical baggage that law enforcement carries to these encounters, might have a better chance to make a positive impact. It’s human nature to want to deal with people who we think understand us better. If there’s a way that we can lighten the load for law enforcement and create a group or project that would potentially transform people’s lives, we need to explore those possibilities.”

Journey On team members, all of them Indigenous and many of them experienced with homelessness themselves, work the streets of Rapid City wearing signature green apparel to forge personal connections with homeless people in the interest of public safety. Photo: Courtesy of Journey On

Street outreach makes impact in Rapid City

There are about 580,000 homeless individuals in the United States, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nearly every major city deals with the problem in some capacity, including the recent phenomenon of tent cities or other encampments that provide temporary solutions to those in need.

In South Dakota, there’s a growing consensus that preventative measures based on mental health and drug addiction counseling are the best way to proceed, with public-private partnerships allowing for a more specialized and targeted approach.

Rapid City opened its Care Campus in 2019, a “one-stop shop” facility that offers detox, crisis care and mental health treatment. Pennington County Health and Human Services teams up with groups such as Safe Solutions, which provides overnight accommodation for intoxicated people who might be turned away at some homeless shelters.

Sioux Falls followed in 2021 with The Link, a community triage center designed to help people facing a non-violent behavioral health crisis or substance abuse problem by providing 24/7 access to support services through a partnership between the city and Minnehaha County along with the Sanford and Avera health systems.

As homeless numbers increase, however, finding enough trained staff to make a difference has proved difficult, putting more pressure on law enforcement. The street outreach strategy involves city governments contracting with private groups that work with displaced individuals to try to gradually integrate them into society or merely keep them safe from harm.

Journey On is a non-profit organization formed in Rapid City in 2019 to address rising friction between predominantly Native American unsheltered individuals and local businesses, which has sparked confrontations with law enforcement. Mayor Steve Allender and Police Chief Don Hedrick have said that more than 60% of police calls in Rapid City are related to homelessness, which led city leaders to try a different approach.

“For Sioux Falls, this might be a preventative strategy that could keep (the homeless issue) from rising to the level of a public health threat, but in Rapid City we’re already there,” said Rich Braunstein, outreach director for Journey On, which entered a contract with the city in January of 2022 that also involves Volunteers of America.

Rich Braunstein

Journey On has 16 team members, all of them Indigenous and many of them experienced with homelessness themselves, who hit the streets in four vans wearing signature green apparel to forge connections in the interest of public safety. Calls to Journey On range from local businesses letting them know about an intoxicated person in an alley or a concerned citizen pointing out a mother and children who are not equipped to be out in the cold. The vans roll regardless of whether there is a situation to react to because being proactive is part of the strategy.

“We go into the community every day to identify people who are unsheltered or vulnerable,” said Braunstein, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota who is also a Journey On board member. “We initiate those contacts. We’re not sitting in a station waiting for a call. We try to build a relationship of trust, visiting with them again and again and again until they’re willing to accept services.”

Team members are on duty six days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (noon to 9 p.m. on Saturdays) and take as many as 80 calls a day from businesses, Braunstein said. They can also be assigned to handle 911 calls for non-violent incidents. Where police officers might need to wrap up a situation quickly to get to the next call, Journey Up staff can spend several hours with vulnerable individuals, who they refer to as “relatives” while using Lakota kinship terms.

“There was recognition among law enforcement that in order for the community to heal and grow, the Native community needed to be empowered to address some of the greatest challenges that it faced,” said Braunstein. “Police officers aren’t social workers, although they’re asked to be social workers. With our team members having a shared lived experience in vulnerable neighborhoods, they’re able to de-escalate by their very presence, like a brother or a sister coming to respond to the person on the street. It’s a win-win, because it allows the police to focus on violent victimization and policing at a higher level.”

Monique “Muffie” Mosseau (left) and her wife, Felipa De Leon, have been active in the Rapid City homeless community. Their Rapid City-based group, Uniting Resilience, works to champion Native Two-Spirit LGBTQ rights. Photo: Courtesy of United Resilience

Finding safety and respect on the streets

Monique “Muffie” Mosseau adopts a more independent approach to helping those on the streets, preferring to stay separate from groups that partner with law enforcement. Her Rapid City-based group, Uniting Resilience, works to champion Native Two-Spirit LGBTQ rights, putting her in contact with young people on their own without shelter, often alienated from family members.

Mosseau and her wife, Felipa De Leon, interact with the homeless community to hand out jackets, gloves and hygiene products, and her Oglala Lakota heritage brings a level of trust and understanding that can’t be matched at city-sanctioned shelters.

“Most of us have gone through a reservation system that gives us a common thread of trauma,” said Mosseau, who grew up in Pine Ridge. “We don’t consider the ‘homeless’ to be homeless. Many were pushed away from families that were shaming them in accordance with the colonial way. We ask them, ‘Why are you out here?’ And the one word that everyone says is, ‘Freedom.’ That’s a powerful statement. They got away from the expectations that society places on them.”

That’s not to say they don’t need help. Many are caught in a cycle of addiction that makes it difficult for them to break away and find a different path. Mousseau said there is more of a Native American outreach effort in Rapid City than Sioux Falls, but both cities’ struggles to care for displaced individuals pales in comparison to what she saw while helping deliver food and services in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“That was a real eye-opener,” she said. “After about a half-hour at a homeless feed in Salt Lake, I had to pull myself away and go to the car and I completely broke down. I could not believe the difference. It’s horrific. They have to do drugs to stay up just to stay safe and not be assaulted while they sleep. Some of them stay up for 10 days straight and then go far away from everybody and crash. That’s how unsafe it is.”

Being well-known in the Two Spirit LGBTQ community allows Mousseau and De Leon to help that segment of the homeless population, which is among the most vulnerable. She recalls meeting a young man from Ohio who was driven from his home by violence after revealing to his father that he was gay.

“Homophobia has pushed a lot of people out into the streets,” Mousseau said. “This was a blond, blue-eyed kid who ran away because his dad beat him up. He was 15 at the time and we met him when he was 22 years old in Rapid City after living in a bunch of places. We helped him get his ID so he could get a job at Pizza Hut. Homeless people don’t come out to each other (regarding their sexuality), but in a roundabout way they’ll find us and take us aside and open up. It’s all about safety and respect. They know that whatever they say is safe with us.”

A group of volunteers helps serve breakfast at the Banquet in downtown Sioux Falls. The Banquet serves as many as 200,000 meals annually to those in need at its two facilities. Photo: Stu Whitney, South Dakota News Watch

Sioux Falls plan could be approved in January

In Sioux Falls, the Homeless Task Force is working with Mayor Paul TenHaken and his staff on funding for the street outreach plan so it can be taken to the city council. Committee Chair Merkouris, a pastor at King of Glory Church in Sioux Falls, hopes to get a specific proposal in front of the council in January. If the funding is approved, organizations could then apply to be chosen to partner with the city for street outreach operations.

The task force plans to require that whatever group is chosen prioritizes Native American experiences and partners with the Helpline Network of Care, an infrastructure system that allows social service agencies to share information with one other.

Merkouris believes the organization selected could come from a host of local groups that do similar work in Sioux Falls, whether it’s South Dakota Urban Indian Health, Southeastern Behavioral Health, Union Gospel Mission or some other agency. But they would have to enhance and expand their mode of operations.

“None currently do street work with a Native American component,” said Merkouris, adding that those services will be part of a financial commitment the contracted group will have to make. “The cost we put forward (as a city) is not estimated to cover the full cost of the street team. It’s our expectation that other grants will be pursued, and this (public money) will enhance the services that the organization is able to provide.”

Among the details yet to be worked out is how the street outreach group will coexist with Sioux Falls law enforcement, but Merkouris has spoken with officials in Rapid City and hopes to adopt some of their model of coordinating 911 calls. Thum, the Sioux Falls police chief, admitted that there might be trial and error in the early stages, but he believes the growing pains are a necessary part of addressing the issue of homelessness before it becomes a larger problem.

“Many times, there’s pressure on city government and other entities that when they roll out a program, it’s going to be 100% functioning without issues from the start,” Thum said. “But I think if we never try or never start, we’ll just get what we’ve always had. This endeavor might start looking one way and then evolve into something else, but unless we get it started, we’ll never know.”