‘Ridiculous amount of people living in cars,’ says Mitchell nonprofit leader aiming to build homeless shelter
Mitchell Salvation Army Captain Bill Middendorp said roughly 30 of the clients the Salvation Army served on a regular basis in February were considered homeless.
MITCHELL — A group of local nonprofit organization leaders have formed around a mission to bring Mitchell its first homeless shelter.
Over the past year, Bill Middendorp, captain of the Salvation Army in Mitchell, has noticed a growing number of community members he assists daily are homeless. The rise in homeless people leaning on the Salvation Army for other services prompted Middendorp to speak at the Mitchell City Council in late March, where he called on city leaders to put building a homeless shelter in the community on their radar.
“We see a ridiculous amount of people who are living in their cars, in and out of hotels when they can afford it,” Middendorp said.
Although this year's official numbers from the statewide homeless count have yet to be released, as of February, Middendorp said roughly 30 of the clients the Salvation Army served on a regular basis are considered homeless.
“Roughly 80% of the clients coming through the door were living in their car and would be considered homeless,” he said, noting those numbers solely reflect what the Salvation Army leaders see. “Thankfully, it’s less in the winter. You’re more willing to take your friend in or your family when it’s brutally cold outside. That's not the case in the summer."
Each year, the South Dakota Housing for the Homeless Consortium, an affiliate of South Dakota Housing Development Authority, conducts an official homeless count throughout the state. The count provides key data for the entity to identify the needs and future funding to address homelessness in the state.
The point-in-time homeless count in 2022 showed South Dakota had a total of 1,389 homeless people. From 2020 to 2022, the state’s point-in-time homeless population rose by 31%, according to the SD Housing for the Homeless Consortium’s data. The 2023 homeless count has yet to be released.
Middendorp’s comments about the shelter were met with intrigue and inquiry among some city council members. Council member Susan Tjarks asked how homeless shelters in other cities are typically funded.
In response, Middendorp explained some shelters are privately funded and receive funding help through grants at various levels of government, including city governments.
Although Middendorp didn’t call on the city to fund the project, Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson and several council members are interested in learning more about the group of nonprofit officials and church leaders who are seeking to bring Mitchell its first shelter.
“We need to see what exactly the need is, but we are very interested in helping out where we can,” Everson said.
Everson noted project leaders could apply for city subsidy funding like all nonprofits are allowed to do each year in the fall. The city council ultimately decides whether to grant subsidy funding requests.
Middendorp is not alone in taking notice of a rise in homeless people around the Mitchell area. Leaders of Mitchell’s Rural Office of Community Services (ROCS), an organization that provides direct assistance for the area’s homeless population, say there have been more people in the area who’ve leaned on ROCS’ emergency shelter assistance program.
Michelle Figland, human resources manager of Mitchell’s ROCS, characterizes homelessness in South Dakota as a problem that can be invisible.
“We may not see someone who is homeless sitting on the side of the road or sidewalk because of our climate. Instead, they may likely be couch surfing at friends’ places. Just because they may not be as visible as they are in a place with a warmer climate doesn’t mean they are not there,” Figland said.
Amid soaring inflation, rising rent prices paired with a volatile economy, Middendorp said, “We’re all possible at becoming homeless at some point.” He used the current economic climate as another point of emphasis for the city to build a homeless shelter.
“Let’s face it, how many people are living paycheck to paycheck? Quite a few. We’re all possible at becoming homeless at some point,” Middendorp said.
No place to go
With no designated homeless shelter within at least a 65-mile radius of Mitchell, Middendorp provided the council with a glimpse of the challenges local nonprofit leaders face when trying to assist a homeless person or family.
When a homeless person seeks shelter through the Salvation Army, one of Middendorp’s only options is to provide them with a bus ticket to the nearest city with a shelter – an option he said is not a solution.
“Our solution is to sometimes give them a bus ticket to Sioux Falls. That’s not really a solution,” he said.
In extreme circumstances, ROCS’ emergency shelter program provides individuals with a temporary hotel stay until living arrangements can be made for someone without a place to shelter.
Sioux Falls and Yankton are among the largest cities in southeast South Dakota that have homeless shelters. Mitchell boasts a slightly larger population than Yankton.
Talks of putting up a homeless shelter in Mitchell have surfaced in the past, but no action materialized from those discussions. In 2014, the Davison County Commission was considering applying for a grant that sought federal funding to help build a homeless shelter and increase street outreach.
The push for a Mitchell shelter in 2014 was led by the Davison County Veterans Service Office Steve McClure, who said to the county commission “I think something should be done.”