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ROCS expanding Mitchell services with new thrift store amid rising demand for assistance services

“A lot of people got a lot of assistance in every part of their life during COVID-19, and now that is starting to dry up,” said Peter Smith, noting home evictions, emergency shelter are on the rise.

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A sign is taped to the door of the former Second and Lawler Co. building, advertising the new ROCS Community Closet will be opening soon.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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MITCHELL — A South Dakota organization is expanding its services in the Mitchell area to provide a lifeline for those in need.

For roughly three decades, Rural Office of Community Services, more commonly known as ROCS, has offered a myriad of services to the Mitchell area, including housing weatherization, home rehabilitation, emergency shelter, food and transportation assistance, to name a few key services. In about a month, ROCS will take on a new venture in Mitchell by opening a thrift store at the former Second and Lawler Co. candy store building, where the organization plans to sell clothes, furniture and other household items for those in need.

“In my previous role, I would be helping people who were in need or maybe just got out of prison, and they would say, ‘I don’t have any clothes,’" said Peter Smith, CEO of ROCs. "In my current role, we are doing all of these other needs and services in Mitchell, but we don’t have a thrift store of our own. We will now be able to refer people in the Mitchell community who don’t have any money to go directly to our thrift store instead of giving them vouchers for other thrift stores.”

Opening the ROCS Community Closet thrift store will offer another affordable option for clothing and household goods at a time when costs for nearly all products have increased with inflation, Smith said.

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Sitting on the corner of 2nd and Lawler is the new location of the ROCS Community Closet on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

The new thrift store also provided an opportunity for ROCS to move its current North Main Street office in Mitchell to the Second Avenue and Lawler Street — a move Smith said will centralize ROCS’ Mitchell footprint and expose more in the area to the variety of services offered. With the influx of people tapping into ROCS’ services over the past year, the Mitchell expansion will aim to meet the growing demand.

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“A lot of people got a lot of assistance in every part of their life during COVID-19, and now that is starting to dry up,” Smith said of what’s partly driving the demand for ROCS’ services. “COVID-19 made people more dependent on our housing programs. A lot of people were getting help with their rent or mortgage from the government. That help is now ending.”

Helping Mitchell’s homeless population

Pandemic relief money reaching the end of its life cycle isn’t the only thing driving more people to ROCS’ services. Inflation increasing as high as 9.1% this year, a jump that hasn’t been seen since 1981, is another factor. It’s created a difficult financial recipe for those living below the federal poverty line, some of whom Smith said are on the brink of being evicted or losing their home.

And that’s resulted in more area residents turning to ROCS for emergency shelter assistance.

“We’re seeing more evictions. We’re seeing more foreclosure potential. The fix that happened during COVID-19 is now creating another obstacle,” Smith said.

ROCS is one of very few organizations in the area that provides people who are without a home a place to temporarily shelter. In extreme circumstances, ROCS will help individuals with a temporary hotel stay or work with local organizations that offer shelter for the homeless.

Seeing a homeless person camped out in Mitchell is a rare sight, but ROCS leaders say homelessness in the area is real and growing.

As ROCS Human Resources Manager Michelle Figland put it, homelessness in South Dakota 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.

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Mitchell does not have a designated homeless shelter like facilities in Yankton and Sioux Falls. However, Smith said there are Mitchell hotels and organizations that work with ROCS to provide emergency shelter for the homeless.

The reality of homelessness in Mitchell can be seen in Davison County felony court proceedings. In the past year alone, at least a handful of individuals who were facing criminal charges indicated they were homeless. Smith said he envisions a ROCS homeless shelter in Mitchell in the future.

“Mitchell is right on Interstate 90. That has an impact on homelessness,” Smith said.

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A sign is taped to the window of the old 2nd and Lawler building advertising the new ROCS Community Closet on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Another way ROCS is giving area residents a lifeline to keep a roof over their head is through its home weatherization program, which entails ROCS sending a contractor to the home and making repairs or identifying areas in the house that are allowing cold air to seep in.

“We go into their homes and make sure they are energy efficient. We find insulation issues and repair things in the home like windows, which helps cut their energy bills. We look at vents, fans and test for radon and carbon monoxide as well to make sure they are in a healthy environment,” Smith said of the weatherization program.

On the transportation front, Smith said ROCS provides vouchers that can be used to receive transportation in Mitchell from Palace Transit, along with paying for a long distance bus ride to an area where an individual may have access to housing or more job opportunities.

Many of ROCS’ services are available for people living under the federal poverty guideline, but Smith said there are other programs that don’t require an individual to be below the poverty line.

ROCS serves communities throughout much of the southeastern and south central portion of the state, reaching areas as far west as Lyman County to the eastern border.

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For ROCS to provide such an array of services, Smith said it wouldn’t be possible without the great partnerships with federal, state and local organizations, including South Dakota Housing Authority. The Mitchell Area Food Pantry and Palace Transit recognizing ROCS-issued vouchers is one example of the partnerships that fuels the organization’s services.

“There are a lot of great organizations out there that share our mission, which is to truly help those in need,” Smith said.

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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