Sioux Falls to begin new effort to help the homeless

“We’re not just looking at the immediate challenge, whether that’s loitering or panhandling or something else, but what are the circumstances that led up to that point.”

South Dakota Urban Indian Health held a community conversation with Downtown Sioux Falls business leaders on April 3.
Stu Whitney / South Dakota News Watch

Sioux Falls could see its first “street outreach” teams working with the city’s homeless population as early as May, with a local organization following an intervention model being used in Rapid City and larger metro areas nationally.

The street outreach strategy uses teams of trained individuals to identify and interact with vulnerable people in the community and try to get them the help they need, taking some of that responsibility away from law enforcement.

“We’re getting ready to get up and going,” said Michaela Seiber, CEO of South Dakota Urban Indian Health, which presented its plan to downtown business leaders and will hold public information meetings at its downtown Sioux Falls office.

“The best way to stop all those law enforcement interactions from happening is to be more engaged with (people in need) on the street.”

The group’s Wo’Okiye Project (“to help” in Lakota) will start in May with 11 staff members, some who have experienced homelessness and addiction themselves. They’ll work in the community to “act as a conduit and support law enforcement in responding to low-level calls.”


The pilot program, funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge, coincides with the City of Sioux Falls requesting bids for a group to coordinate a street outreach effort as outlined by the Sioux Falls Homeless Task Force and approved unanimously by the City Council in March.

Proposals are due April 27 to be eligible for the partnership, with an annual budget of $250,000 for a two-year contract. The city has the option to extend it for three additional one-year terms. The contract is scheduled to be awarded May 15, with the partnership starting the following month.

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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.

Seiber confirmed that Urban Indian Health will submit a proposal. Other organizations such as Union Gospel Mission and Southeastern Behavioral Health were also mentioned as potential candidates during the task force process.

The effort is an acknowledgment among public officials in Sioux Falls and Rapid City that the origins of homelessness and drug addiction are complex and often melded with mental health issues, and that getting to the root of the problem could have more lasting impact than merely providing meals or temporary shelter.

“We’re looking beyond the law enforcement response to a more holistic and personal approach,” said Vanessa Sweeney, clinic services manager for Falls Community Health, part of Sioux Falls’ effort to address homelessness as a public health concern.

“We’re not just looking at the immediate challenge, whether that’s loitering or panhandling or something else, but what are the circumstances that led up to that point.”

The street outreach strategy also addresses the reality that Native Americans make up a disproportionate number of the South Dakota homeless population, creating cultural and language barriers in some cases that prevent meaningful intervention, especially when police are first on the scene.

A guest sleeps in an overnight room of the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House onThursday, August 11, 2022, in Sioux Falls.
Erin Woodiel / Argus Leader, via South Dakota News Watch

“Law enforcement can be well-equipped and well-trained, but a lot of times for the individuals that we’re dealing with, it’s going to start off with a position of animosity because they view (police officers) as not necessarily the one they want to hear that message from,” Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum told News Watch in December 2022.


“Someone who comes from a different background or perspective and has time to build relationships can maybe be the one who steers them toward positive change.”

The latest point-in-time homeless count by the South Dakota Housing for the Homeless Consortium – conducted on Jan. 25, 2022 – put the number of homeless individuals in the state at 1,389, up nearly 50% from five years ago (955 in 2017).

The Rapid City count was 458 (up 53% from 2017) and Sioux Falls was 407 (up 26%). These numbers are generally considered undercounts because of the challenges of finding and identifying people without a home, especially in the middle of winter.

Native Americans, who make up 8.8% of the overall state population, comprised nearly 70% of the 2022 state homeless count, including 76% in Rapid City. Sioux Falls, where the homeless population is 36% Indigenous, according to the count, has used Rapid City and other communities as a model for “co-response” efforts to find the source of people’s struggles and funnel them to available services when they’re ready.

“What we’re finding with our staff members who have lived experience in these settings is that those relationships they form create a level of trust,” said Seiber, who grew up in Sisseton and is a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. “It puts us in a unique position to fill this role.”

South Dakota Urban Indian Health, which has 37 full- and part-time staff members, spent an afternoon shadowing Journey On, a street outreach organization in Rapid City, and also did a site visit in Pima County, Arizona, to learn more about crisis response efforts.

The city’s request for proposals calls for a minimum 30 hours per week. It calls for “active intervention coverage in designated areas identified by the city,” during which street outreach staffers will be expected to “engage homeless individuals in a productive, compassionate manner.” The outreach team members will direct people to behavioral health, addiction treatment or training/development programs as needed.

All interactions will be documented in the Helpline Network of Care database, an infrastructure system that allows social service agencies to share information with one other.


City officials acknowledged that the street outreach program will likely evolve over time.

“This is about progress, not perfection,” said Sweeney. “All the nuances about where it’s going to take us will be dictated in part by the people we’re trying to help. What are their needs? What will they allow us to do and not allow us to do and what are they comfortable with? In some ways, we have to follow their lead of letting us in enough to be able to assist. That’s a hard one to sketch out right now.”

— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at

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