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Homeless shelter needed, but there's no place to put it

RAPID CITY, S.D. - A new organization recognizes the need for additional help for homeless people and proposes to do more than find a shelter for them.

Members of the Hope for the Homeless organization met with Rapid City Mayor Jim Shaw to ask for help, but there is little the city can do other than offer moral support.

Shaw told the group the city does not get involved financially with private non-profit organizations and there is no vacant building available for the group to use as a shelter.

"The short- and the long-term goals of the organization are commendable. They want to work with people to be productive members of the community," Shaw said.

The purpose of Hope for the Homeless organization is to not just house people in need of shelter, but take the long-term approach and help the people acquire and maintain jobs, work through drug and alcohol treatment and eventually find them a permanent home. The task may take more than a year for some individuals, group members said.

David Seals, a board member, said the overwhelming number of homeless people are American Indian. Therefore the new organization's board of directors reflects that population base.

"There is no real homeless shelter in town. The (Cornerstone) Rescue Mission is good, but it is always full. The mayor had a good idea to talk to business people and the state and the feds to see if we can get a building or if somebody in town can donate one. The need is right now. People are on the street right now and it's getting cold," Seals said.

The new organization does not want to take away the work done by existing organizations. The mission is more long range and the intent is to connect the homeless people with other organizations to obtain needed services that can lead to future and permanent employment.

"Sounds like a good project and I wish them the very best. It's an ambitious undertaking and I hope it will be successful in moving forward with a program that I'd like to put in place in Rapid City," Shaw said. The city, he repeated, may not be able to help the organization with its plans.

There are a number of groups working on homeless issues in Rapid City, Shaw said. "If all of these groups can work together and obviously not duplicate what the other organizations are doing yet fill in the gaps, we can expand the services to hopefully everyone who is in need of help will have that available."

The Hope for the Homeless position statement says that it will help many homeless who need a GED or some job training through programs provided by the community. For some people, who have advanced degrees and have merely "lost their way," the organization will provide an in-between help program to get the people on track for long-range employment and housing.

"We know there are people dying under the bridge and we know it is our own people killing each other. We are going to be real about the whole situation," said Junal Gerlach, member of the board. "All we have is today. We can't get the money from yesterday, all we can do is ask today and get on with our lives."

Gerlach knows the life of a homeless person. She said she stayed in a shelter and now has eight years of sobriety. What helped her was church involvement. "If I didn't have that middle hand meeting me, two weeks after I went to church I went to college. Then I went on to beauty college."

She said she volunteered for two years on her own by cutting hair and doing makeovers and consulting about how people dressed to get ready for work.

"I was one of those few people that somebody helped me all the way through or I wouldn't be where I am today. I'm working a full-time job, paying child support for the children that I lost and I lost everything. I'm also taking care of two children that I have today.

"My point in my life is to go out there and help other people make it and to help so they can pay back to society what we've taken away. I want to help with funds to get children in after-school activities. I will also be getting funds for musical instruments, dancing lessons and traveling expenses.

"Each one of us has an important part to play."

Seals is a movie-maker-writer. He wrote and produced the film "Pow Wow Highway" and is in the process of producing a sequel to "Pow Wow Highway" and a film entitled "Annie Mae." He said homeless people would be used in the upcoming films.

"Minimum wage jobs at McDonalds or the casinos cannot support a family. We're meeting with Job Service and the city and the state, as well as the feds like the BIA to build an Indian Film Production Studio, and to train actors, filmmakers, designers, all the good-paying jobs opening up in the booming telecommunications industries," Seals said.

Seals created the Multi-Tribal Repertory Theatre company and will use it to work in conjunction with Hope for the Homeless to train and educate people about the art and technology of film and theatre. He said many of the skills needed in the film and telecommunications industries, such as designers, visual artists, computer designers and programmers and other skills, are used in the production of film projects.

"Each one of us are angry because our people are out there and they are dying. And we know that they can make it. And we will get mad and do something about it," Gerlach said.

For the long-term solutions, the group plans to assist each person on an individual basis, assess the person's skills or needs and plan a program that will lead the person into the future. "We will not just put a person into any old job," she said.

When a person enters the program, they will enter into a contract and eventually acquire a home of their own if they follow through, "so they won't have to be homeless again. We are going to be there beside them and battling for them. We're hands-on, we're going to speak for them and teach them skills," Gerlach said.

Another organization, the Annie Mae Foundation, will be used to acquire funds that will help buy homes for people who go through the program, group members said.