The story of Ernie and Connie: a romance that survived alcoholism but not the killing cold
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It’s not a Romeo and Juliet story. It’s an Ernie and and Connie story.
The scripts for both end with two star-crossed lovers dead. But the outside forces that led them to their fates are as different as the times and the tales themselves — as different as the people themselves, too.
Both are tragic. But one is a fictional classic of literature by William Shakespeare. The other is a real-life story of addiction, the failure of public-support systems and the potentially deadly realities of long, frozen nights spent on the edges of our society by the homeless.
Some of whom don’t survive.
Now the “some of whom” list includes Ernie Evans and Connie Red Nest. Ernie was found dead under a bridge in North Rapid City on the morning of Feb. 4. Connie was lying nearby. Both died of exposure, sometime during a night when the temperature dropped to 6 below zero.
The loss is still being felt across the homeless population in Rapid City, and beyond.
“It’s very tragic. I’m sick to my stomach about it, because these people were truly friends of mine,” says Cathie Harris, director of Lifeline Connection of the Black Hills, a nonprofit offering “faith-based solutions” to life’s challenges. “People are devastated by this loss. I know grown men who weep because Connie and Ernie are gone.”
Brian Lone Elk didn’t weep Wednesday afternoon as he talked about Ernie and Connie while sitting at a table in the Hope Center in downtown Rapid City, where the homeless go during the day for warmth and fellowship and a variety of services. But his eyes lowered and his voice softened as he described the popular Native American couple who always brightened a room or a stretch of downtown street.
“They were just a very nice couple. And they loved each other so much,” Lone Elk said, as his sister, Lucille, nodded agreement nearby. “They were always together. You never heard them say anything negative about anybody.”
Brian and Lucille Lone Elk spent the night of Feb. 3 with Connie at the Faith Temple Church a block or so from the Hope Center. Ernie spent that night at the hospital, then met Connie outside Faith Temple in the morning.
“We went one way and they went the other way,” Lucille Lone Elk said. “That was the last time we saw them.”
Faith Temple had opened its doors that night as a temporary shelter in a loosely structured program established and overseen by Harris, without approval from city officials, including and especially Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris.
The program had been a point of contention between Harris and Jegeris before Ernie and Connie died. It has become much more than that since since the tragedy, because Jegeris suggested in public comments that the temporary shelter and Harris’s work contributed to the death of the couple.
“As police chief I’m in the role of delivering unpleasant messages,” Jegeris said. “It honestly was hard to deliver a message that there was clear correlation regarding the tragic deaths that occurred and a temporary sheltering that had been taking place.”
Jegeris contends that it’s dangerous in a northern climate like this to offer temporary winter shelter to people who are intoxicated without also offering the kind of monitoring and services available to those taken, usually by police, to the city-county detox center. That creates “a false sense of security” among the chronically alcoholic and homeless, Jegeris said.
“It has an enabling effect,” he said. “It sends an indirect message that you can continue to consume outdoors because there will be someone there to take care of you at the end of the day. And we all know that’s not always true.”
Offering blankets and food to people trying to survive outdoors along Rapid Creek in the winter is another dangerous action, however well intended, Jegeris said.
“That sends a bad message that it’s OK to sleep outdoors. And it’s really not. It’s unsafe,” he said. “
Harris takes such criticism personally, and also disputes Jegeris’s conclusion that she and her program had some culpability in the loss of life.
“It’s not fair he’s blaming me for their deaths. But I know I had nothing to do with it,” Harris said. “It’s not like I kicked them out of a warming shelter. I didn’t even have a warming shelter that night. I don’t understand where his logic is coming from. I know he’s frustrated, because people are dying.”
Indeed, Ernie and Connie were far from the first lives lost to the cold among the homeless in Rapid City, even this winter. Alan Jack, 69, a regular at homeless shelters, was found dead from exposure on Christmas morning. About a month later, 44-year-old Alton Pumpkinseed was found dead under a bridge, although his death was attributed to natural causes beyond exposure.
The first two deaths led Harris and supporters to open the temporary warming shelters at several churches on dangerously cold nights. She contends that most who use them follow the rules and don’t cause problems.
There were some problems with unruly behavior, however, by some intoxicated homeless people at the warming shelter overnight at Faith Temple on Feb. 2. Because of that, the shelter closed early the morning of Feb. 3. A bit later that morning Ernie and Connie showed up at the shelter with the buckets they used to carry personal belongings.
“They came back while I was cleaning up at Faith Temple,” Harris said. “I gave them a cup of soup, they loaded up their buckets and away they went. Unfortunately, that was the last time I saw them.”
By the next morning, they were dead. And soon Jegeris was raising questions about the idea of the temporary shelters and urging better options. On dangerously cold nights, detox is a much-better place than the shelters for those who are intoxicated and have no other lodging, he said.
In some instances, where crimes are committed, jail might be appropriate, or the hospital emergency room if there are medical issues involve, Jegeris said.
“I will tell you that detox will creatively find a way to admit one way or the other,” Jegeris said. “We will not leave people out in the cold.”
Jegeris also points out that the city and county will soon have greater capacity to handle the chronically intoxicated homeless with an expanded center for services and assistance now under construction across from the public safety building and county courthouse and jail. Called the Restoration Center and expected to open by this summer, it will include health and human services, alcohol and drug programs and expanded detox facilities.
Meanwhile, though, the night can still get cold, and Harris says temporary shelter is better than no shelter, especially since the policy of the Cornerstone Rescue Mission downtown is to not admit intoxicated people.
“Where do these people go?” she said. “I’m not doing anything illegal with warming shelters. And the city isn’t doing anything right now to provide additional spots for people who are intoxicated. We have a group of volunteers who want to find solutions.”
Since the last two deaths from exposure, those solutions have included more nights of temporary shelters without any great problems, she said. Despite the concerns expressed by Jegeris and others, including Mayor Steve Allender, Harris and her crew of volunteers are continuing the warming shelters.
“We have hosted over 200 people over the last six weeks and only three people have been removed for being intoxicated,” she said. “We have a warm, safe, friendly environment.”
The next four weeks the shelter will be at Faith Temple. And some of the homeless will help as well as seek shelter.
“We have empowered people from the street to be some of our best helpers at the shelter,” she said. “They have a sense of ownership with knowing the rules need to be followed or they won’t have a place to stay.”
None of which settles the questions and concerns of Jegeris and others who believes a more organized, professionally staffed system is better and safer.
“The staff at the detox center has a high level of expertise regarding substance abuse and encouraging a change in behavior,” Jegeris said. “They really do a good job. And this is the resource we utilize. We think the community is well aware that that resources is going to be expanded.”
But if long-term solutions are ahead, they won’t change the ending of the Ernie and Connie story. That endures as a tragedy that Harris carries every day.
Harris had known Ernie and Connie for four years. They began coming to a free biscuits-and-gravy breakfast she serves for the poor and homeless, and were “continuous guests for breakfast” after that.
She said they both had children from previous relationships and also children together, as well as grandchildren. They had been together more than 20 years.
“They were delightful people, always helpful when they came in, and always with a story, often about their kids or grandkids,” Harris said. “They loved God, and they were always talking about how grateful they were that God had provided this or that, and God was walking with them. They were very faithful people and had a great relationship with each other, as well as with everyone else.”
That’s the more sober side of Ernie and Connie. There was another side, too, and it’s the one that got them evicted from their last home.
“They had been street people for the last six months,” Harris said. “They were in the process of getting a home of their own. Both were terrible alcoholics, and they’ve been trying desperately to be clean and sober and not kicked out of the next place.”
Harris tried to track figure out where the couple went after leaving her shelter on the morning of that fateful night. She knows they were at an apartment in North Rapid at some point Saturday evening, Feb. 3. But there was heavy drinking there and details on when and why the couple left were sketchy.
“All I know is they were there at that apartment that night,” Harris said. “Then a passerby spotted them at about 10 o’clock the next morning.”
As tragic as the deaths were, Harris wasn’t entirely surprised that Ernie and Connie died on the same night, one near the other.
“They really were soul mates,” she said. “I don’t think one of them could have survived without the other.”
And just as reconciliation between two feuding families came out of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, Harris is hoping something good might come from the loss of her friends.
If that good means better services and more sheltering options for the homeless and addicted, it could save lives, she said.
“My friends perished, and now maybe something will get resolved,” she said. “Maybe something good will happen because of their deaths.”
It remains a challenge of Shakespearean proportions, however. And as Harris and Jegeris move forward, perhaps on different paths, toward the same objective of helping those who need it most, they might take some words from Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet along with them:
“A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things…”
And in the talk of these sad things, of homeless people lost, a life-saving solution might be found.
First and foremost for the memory of Ernie and Connie, and of Alan Jack and Alton Pumpkinseed. But also for all the homeless, star-crossed human beings whose lives are threatened by every frigid night.