RCPD: Pop-up warming shelters doing more harm than good

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In relation two to the deaths of two people believed to be homeless, Rapid City's chief of police and assistant chief have each released a letter regarding  troubles with recent "disorganized efforts" to address homeless issues. 

Below is a letter from RCPD Chief Karl Jegeris to Mayor Steve Allender and the Rapid City Common Council:

Mayor and Council,

Last Monday I met with Cathie Harris of RV Ministry and 3 other volunteers that have been hosting the pop-up warming shelters that have been inconsistently operating over the past couple of months at various locations. I explained that although they were well intended, I felt they were creating more harm than good with their efforts due to enabling and indirectly encouraging our city’s at-risk inebriated homeless population by providing a false sense of security by offering to locate and provide warmth, which could encourage continued drinking. I asked them to redirect their volunteer energy to established service providers. It was clear they were determined to continue their efforts, even though they don’t have a consistent location, or even days of service.

As you can see below, they provided an unsafe environment that allowed continued drinking throughout the night this past Friday. The clients didn’t receive proper rest, and were returned to the cold, probably many still being intoxicated.  As you can see below, one of the clients sought rest under a bridge and died. 

I contacted the church involved this past weekend and will discouraged them from continuing to allow this group from operating in such a careless manner, or to ensure they have the capacity to operate in a consistent and safe manner. I was assured they would comply. I also contacted the group leader, Cathie Harris, and asked her again to consider re-directing her groups resources to established service providers that have a safe and consistent location to provide sheltering services. Although she was respectful, I’m again left uncertain regarding her future efforts. Without a consistent location and volunteer resources, this effort will potentially pose risk to public safety. Established resources of detox and the Cornerstone Rescue Mission, although at capacity, are able to find creative ways to ensure everyone has a safe place.  

I will also be sharing my concerns with local media. I anticipate this will be controversial, and I appreciate your support as I seek to discourage well intended, but unsafe efforts regarding public safety.  

Karl Jegeris

Below is a letter from RCPD Assistant Chief Don Hedrick to Chief Karl Jegeris:

Chief Jegeris,

In early January I met with Cathie Harris of RV Ministry and discussed safety concerns related to the “warming shelter” concept that was starting to occur in Rapid City. Some of the main concerns from my perspective involved RV Ministry creating another rescue mission without mandating that attendees were sober, failing to remove alcohol bottles from the shelter attendees, ensuring weapons or drugs weren’t brought into the facility, etc. I relayed that the alcohol issue would create an unsafe environment for all attending the shelter.

This Sunday morning, we learned two individuals had passed away under the I-190 bridge and as temperatures were extremely cold Saturday night, it appears exposure was likely the main contributing cause of death. I contacted Cathie [Monday] to follow up on the warming shelters concept, to ask if a shelter was provided Saturday night, and to ask about future plans for the shelters moving forward. 

Cathie sounded upset on the phone at times, as she had recently learned an individual that passed away Saturday night had attended the warming shelters in the past. Through our conversation, I discovered one of the deceased had attended the warming shelter they hosted at a downtown church basement on Friday night. She explained she has been working with the Downtown Church to utilize this location as a long term solution for ongoing warming shelters moving forward.

Cathie went on to say that Saturday night was a very bad night as “28 out of the 29 people there were drunk.” She advised nearly everyone at the shelter was instigating problems and this led her to contact the RCPD and she had to shut the shelter down early. Throughout the evening it appeared to the warming shelter volunteers that the attendees were becoming more intoxicated as the night continued. She explained how they allow people to leave the shelter to smoke and the staff discovered later that a large bottle of vodka was stationed outside. The attendees were dumping the water out of the bottles provided by the shelter and filling the bottles with vodka and then bringing the alcohol into the [facility]. As a result, those there to rest were unable to, as disturbances and threatening behavior occurred to the point where it appeared someone was going to “pick up a chair” to insight a “brawl.” Cathie did eventually call the police although some of the other volunteers criticized her for failing to call earlier. Once the police were contacted, some of the attendees became upset at Cathie personally as they believed she should not have called law enforcement. It got to the point where Cathie told the group she was going to cook breakfast and then everyone had to leave early. She made the decision to cancel plans on hosting a warming shelter Saturday night as she was not happy with the way things went Friday night. 

After getting off the phone with Cathie, I checked our records and discovered the police were actually called to the downtown church three times late Friday night: 

CFS 18-031769 22:16 2/2/2018 : Reporting Party called in to report Intoxicated subjects causing issues/”picking fights” in church warming shelter. Male subject transported to detox.

CFS 18-031769 03:43 2/3/2018 : Reporting Party called in to report Male and Female intoxicated subjects arguing/”causing problems” in church warming shelter. Male and Female were removed and transported to subject’s fathers residence.

CFS 18-032580 17:43 2/3/2018 : Reporting Party called in to report homeless person was outside with wheelchair issues. Subject was transported to detox.

During our discussion I reiterated the safety concerns presented by allowing an overnight place for people to consume alcohol or to remain while intoxicated. Further, I discussed a scenario where a homeless person might feel encouraged to continue consuming alcohol, expecting the warming shelter to be open when in reality the shelter might not be available. We had a discussion on current options that exist and how the Cornerstone Rescue Mission will not turn people away when the temperatures are bitter cold or they will contact the RCPD if the individual is intoxicated and we will locate a safe solution. 

Cathie advised RV Ministries is planning on continuing with the warming shelters this week; she was leaving town but other members of the One Rapid City/Community Conversations group were going to explore locations and dates for the shelters.   

Don Hedrick

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