Remembering those who died alone in the cold and building the campuses of hope and help

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Thomson Park in North Rapid City where Jeremy Rocky Mountain died

Thomson Park is a fetching little piece of city property this time of year, all dressed up in the bright greens of early summer.

When I stopped by a while back on a breezy, mostly cloudy morning, a man of about my age was playing with his grandson. They were armed with fly swatters, prowling around the outside of the old stone picnic shelter in the middle of the park, arms cocked and weapons ready.

“You guys hunting flies?” I asked.

The boy flashed me a look that seemed to say “Duh!” and kept on hunting. But his grandpa  stopped to chat, one old man to another.

“He thinks it’s fun,” that old man said, with just enough of a smile to reveal his own delight at the process. “But we’re not finding them today.”

A picnic shelter without flies? Well, it was early in the day, and still kind of cool.

“I’ll bet they’ll be back when the sun comes out and the wind goes down,” I said, adding: “This sure is a nice old picnic shelter.”

And, indeed, it is nice, with full gray-stone-and-mortar walls shaping a building for two bathrooms on one end of the shelter and belly-button-high stone half-walls around the rest, all under a red sheet-metal roof.

Inside, there are six blue metal picnic tables in the open area and two solid-stone fireplaces with a shared chimney at the north end.

The old man said it’s a fine place to gather.

“We’ve had 40 people in here, with both fireplaces going. It’s real nice,” he said.  “But I guess somebody died in here last winter.”

“Yeah, I heard,” I said. “That was a sad deal, wasn’t it.”

Two old men nodded, as a child played nearby.

 

The lives lost matter beyond the statistics

The somebody who died in the picnic shelter last February was 34-year-old Jeremy Rocky Mountain of Rapid City. His body was found in the shelter on Feb. 22. After an investigation, authorities determined that he died of hypothermia, with a .346 blood-alcohol level.

A level of .08 is considered impaired under the law. And .346 might be a lethal level on its own, for some people.

Whatever the state of Rocky Mountain’s impairment at the time of his death, it was a tragedy that brought me, several months later, to Thomson Park in northeast Rapid City. I wanted to spend some time there thinking about a young man who died, perhaps as sought refuse from winter in that old stone shelter.

I’d never been to Thomson Park before, but I’ll go back, to think about Jeremy Rocky Mountain, and others like him.  I also intend to stop from time to time in the Trinity Lutheran Church parking lot in downtown Rapid City, where 51-year-old Larry Low Dog was found dead on the morning of March 14, after a blizzard.

Going back purposefully to places like these is important, I think, because deaths like these, among people we see as lost along the margins of our society, are otherwise easily forgotten by the world outside of their family and friends. And they shouldn’t be forgotten, not in a community with both a head and a heart.

Yet, I was guilty of such forgetfulness, which revealed itself during a tour my wife, Mary, and I took of Pennington County’s new Care Campus in downtown Rapid City.  It’s quite a place, that campus, covering 70,000 square feet and offering essential social services and incarceration alternatives.

Sheriff Kevin Thom, Chief Deputy Willie Whelchel and sheriff’s office public information officer  Helene Duhamel, who was for years a noted TV newswoman here in Rapid City, offered the tour. It began at the most fundamental level of Care Campus accommodations: A safe place to spend the night. Willie Whelchel

 They call it Safe Solutions. And it is what is says it is: A safe place for those who are intoxicated, to sleep, to sit, to regroup.

A stay in Safe Solutions might be for the night. It might be for a few hours during the day. It might also be a life safer, whatever the time and level of inebriation.

Unlike the Cornerstone Rescue Mission a few blocks away, the Care Campus doesn’t prohibit the intoxicated from entry. It’s a requirement, in fact, for getting a bed in Safe Solutions.

“They have to be intoxicated to use them. We’re not the mission,” Whelchel said. “Sometimes they’ll be used multiple times during the day.”

For some, that will be enough, perhaps many times. For others, eventually, they’ll want more than a bed of the floor and a return to that old life a few hours later. So staffers at the Care Campus make options available, even at that lowest level of care.

Relationship building, relationship strengthening is a big part of the staff’s work with those who come through that back door.

“The goal is to get them into motivational talking, maybe get them onto detox,” Thom said.

From there, a lot can happen. A lot that’s good. Just in the detox program, the Care Campus offers 64 beds, split evenly between men and women. The existing detox center in town has 28 beds, although with the transition of detox to the Care Center they’re operating at even less than 28. mats

Detox is for people who are voluntarily or involuntarily committed. And involuntary hold lasts 24 to 48 hours on average, although commits can be there for up to five days.They’ll get clean clothes, access to showers and meals. Before they leave, they will also meet with a counselor to discuss treatment options and, if wanted, make referrals. 

Those who enter detox are monitored constantly and withdrawal-management services are available while they sober up, which is a requirement before door opens the other way.

“Once they’re in detox, they have to be sober to leave,” Whelchel said. “They can’t leave before that.”

 

When they want to have more than a place to sleep for the night

 

But once they are in detox, a number of possibilities are presented to them, including access to counseling, to treatment, to assistance in finding a place to live or even to work.  For those interested in change, the Care Campus offers access to a “continuum of care,” all beginning in “the same hallway, the same building,” Whelchel said.

Long term, it has to be more than offering safe beds and helping those who are willing to work to change, he said.

“These folks that are homeless, living on the street and having all these struggles, we might get them in and get them sobered up, or soberer, for a period of time, when if we just hand them a car a card and say ‘Hey, how about next Tuesday you go here?” That’s not going to happen, right? So we’ve got to be able to hold their hand and help them through the process.”

Familiarity matters in all that almost as much as the facility and services. That’s why it matters than so many staffers of the Care Campus have real relationships with the people they work with.  Care Campus

“Our staff work with a lot of these folks on a daily basis and in many cases have for years. So they know them by name and know different ones having struggles,” Whelchel said. “I’ve witnessed them asking,’Where’s Roger. He normally comes in with you.’ And the answer might be, ‘He didn’t want to come tonight. He’s down the alley.’ And the staff will all law enforcement and say, ‘Hey, we hear Roger is down the alley a ways. You might want to do a welfare check because he didn’t’ make it to the door.’”

Before they get to that door, people trying to survive on the streets might already have a relationship with member of the Quality of Life team from the Rapid City Police Department, which is also housed at the Care Campus.

That team is led by Officer Dan Mertz and Senior Officer Jim Hansen, who work with case managers at the Care Campus but also reach out personally to the homeless and other vulnerable people in Rapid City.

“That’s a proactive, hands-on approach, the way they’re working with these folks,” Welchel said. “You take Jim Hansen, who’s been with the police some 30 years and worked with these folks for decades. He’s on a first-name basis with many of them just as they are with him. So the Quality of Life officers are out there working with people on the street to help them before they’re dealing with the officers.”

The work of the Quality of Life officers continues when people they work with on the outside enter the Care Campus.

“They’re working with them when they’re in here, too, to help them find a different direction, just as our case managers are, just as our counselors are,” Whelchel said. “And our detox technicians are a big part of that. They have  huge hearts in the way they work with these folks.”

Also housed in the Care Campus is the Pennington County Health and Human Services Department and its range of staff and services. They include case management services for Safe Solutions and Crisis Care on the campus, as well as veterans services, rent, utilities and transportation assistance, grant and medical-medication assistance, transitional housing and “rebound, reentry” programs for those in the criminal-justice system.

Behavioral Health Management, a not-for-profit organization servicing those struggling with addiction and mental-health disorders in the Black Hills, provides mental health professionals through the Crisis Care team on the campus.

“When folks come in, they’re triaged by our intake specialists. They decide who’s the right professional to get them in front of,” Whelchel said. “Is this a mental-health crisis they’re going through? Are they just intoxicated? Is it situational, maybe? You might start in Safe Solutions but get to detox. As you start sobering up in detox we might find out you’ve got other things going on and the you might go over to crisis care, which is staffed 24-7 by a qualified mental-health professional.”

 

Helping people prepare for that bump in the road

All that initiative assessment and proper placement might lead to more long-term care in the residential treatment beds upstairs, which are expected to be open this fall. And the work doesn’t end there.

“Then there’s the next part of it, with folks who have no where to call home, no where to put their head down,” Whelchel said. “There’s going to be some temporary housing that goes with this, job assistance and a lot of other things as we hand them off, where somebody will hold their hand so when they hit that bump in the road they can lift them up and keep them on track.”

That “hand off” is convenient, because the next stage in the continuum of care is right news door to the  Care Campus, or will be within a year or so. Keeping clients on track is a job that eventually will be shared by the Care Campus and the OneHeart campus.

The next-stage resource center would house an assortment of non-profit social service agencies, transitional housing options — including right on sight in former dormitories — and even services like urgent care.

Like the Care Campus, OneHeart would serve the homeless, addicted, vulnerable population in the city. Rapid City officials have approved the use of $5 million in the overall costs of $16 million, which includes the purchase of existing buildings and renovation costs.

The transitional housing on the OneHeart campus will provide easy access for those coming out of the nearby Care Campus. OneHeart project manager Charity Doyle said the campus will  be a crucial step for those coming out of the Care Campus or other assistance centers. Guy on stilts

“What happens with Care Campus, Rescue Mission, Hope Center is people leave those places and there are no next steps for them,” Doyle says. “And it can be a revolving door. They get caught  up in the whole system of pressure that put them there in the first place.”

OneHeart and its multiplicity of assistance options will help people resist that pressure, consider better options and move forward out of self-destructive and — for the people and the public — expensive cycles.

“OneHeart wants to reach out to the invisible parts of the population,” she said. “And by locating right next door to the Care Campus, the folks who need assistance coming from Care Campus will be able to see that next step.”

 

Homeless number higher than counts can catch

Rapid City’s homeless population is hard to estimate. And often people think the dozens or scores of people seen at one place or the other around the downtown area or along the bike path represents the whole of that population.

But there’s a larger population of “hidden homeless,” many of them children, that must be helped in the community, Doyle says. Those include people packed into motel rooms, sleeping in spare rooms of friends or relatives or even in vehicles.

“There were about 600 homeless children representing 300 homeless families by the end of the school year,” she said. “That was just through middle school. High school is mostly self reporting and a lot of the students are ashamed to do that. We know we don’t have the full number.”

Housing remains an issue that is tied to the kind of help Care Campus and OneHeart are designed to offer, Doyle said.

“But we’re taking the hard approach to this,” she said. “The easy approach would be to throw up housing, house people, throw up our hands and be done. But models that take that approach haven’t fixed anything that changes the outcome. It’s time to change that outcome. It’s time to change that approach.”

Critics of the program fear the campuses will become magnets attracting people who seem them as an opportunity for a place to sleep or concentrate without having to work on personal betterment.

Thom says that concern is being considered as he and others compile data on those served by the Care Campus, and keeping track of whether they’re local or from outside the Rapid City area.

“We’re cognizant of that potential effect — the “build it and they will come effect — and we’re watching the data  to see if there’s anything like that,” he said. “We haven’t seen a spike yet but we weren’t tracking it before.”

Thom says there is always going to be a “seasonal effect” in Rapid City that will discourage people who don’t like cold weather from coming to town, especially during the winter.

But that’s something to be watched as the OneHeart Campus is completed and joins the Care Campus in providing services that Thom believes can reshape the lives of many in need.

“I think there will be a real synergy between the two campuses,” he said. ‘Hopefully we’ll be able to get people sobered up and link some of them with OneHeart and the services it will provide.”

The programs will be aimed at providing assistance rather than a sense of dependence. And while providing needed serves to a struggling segment of the city population, the campuses will divert people from going to jail and into what can be an expensive cycle in the criminal justice system.

 

Offering a diversion that saves money, staff time, lives

“People use the term ‘jail diversion,’ but I like ‘system diversion’ better, because you’re saving court time, state’s attorney time, jail time,” Thom said.

Since the Care Campus opened last fall, more than 500 cases that were headed for the criminal justice system have been handled through the campus resources instead.

“That’s system diversion,” Thom said. “So it’s really doing what it was intended to do.”

Then there’s the lives that were likely saved because the most basic of services — a warm room, a mat on the floor, a safe place to be — was provided in thousands of cases. And when winter weather was especially harsh, things got really busy in Safe Solutions.

“We didn’t turn anybody away. We made it work,” Whelchel said. “So we got people safe.”

They couldn’t do it all, of course. The deaths of Jeremy Rocky Mountain and Larry Low Dog were sad proof of that. But Whelchel believes the death toll would have been worse had it not been for Safe Solutions.

Sometimes during the first winter at Care Campus, just getting the vulnerable through the potentially deadly nights of winter had to be the focus. But survivors have more in store for them, and their future.

“Now we’re getting toward summer and we have time to really start working with these folks and getting them more assistance, more help,” Whelchel says. “We’re working with and talking with these folks. If they want help, if they want assistance we’re going to help them with that.”

And if they don’t?

Thom and Whelchel both says the Care Campus is “not going to be a flop house.” At some point, people have to show an interest in changing their lives to get continued assistance.

“But if they continue with just ‘I want to live on the streets; I want to stay intoxicated; I want to continue to break the law,” whatever it is we’re going to have to find different alternatives for them.”

Such as jail, and that revolving door of the criminal justice system.

But Whelchel and Thom hope most will choose a different direction, one that takes them through the Care Campus and OneHeart toward a better life beyond.

And far away from a lonely death out in the cold.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.