South Dakota saw some of the biggest drops in homelessness across a number of demographics last year. Yet advocates say they still have their work cut out for them and are developing solutions to get more help and funding.
Overall homelessness in South Dakota declined by 19.1 percent last year, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) figures. And the number of people living in shelters that are considered “unfit” for habitation -- which includes cars and abandoned buildings -- plummeted by a whopping 83.8 percent.
But homelessness advocates say that those impressive figures are misleading and fail to represent the child homelessness “epidemic” the state currently faces.
Every year, on a single night in January, HUD conducts its “point in time” count and dispenses volunteers to scour the streets and shelters in each state to determine the country's homelessness rate.
But experts in the field say that due to the limiting nature of the process, more than 1 million children around the country are left out of the organization’s estimates.
“A lot of times, the data doesn’t reflect the population of youth that are dealing with this crisis,” Staci Jonson, director of Arise Youth Center in Rapid City, told The Huffington Post. “Youth are kind of an invisible population.”
The situation is particularly grim in South Dakota where advocates say they’re seeing historic rates of child and youth homelessness.
There, 740 children in the Rapid City area schools don’t have a permanent home, Anita Deranleau, the district’s homeless coordinator, told The Huffington Post.
Such inaccurate data is a detriment to aid organizations because when they apply for funding, they’ll often get turned down because the official figures don’t paint a precise picture of the crisis at hand among children.
“I get frustrated because I know that when agencies around here put in for funding for more housing, they’re going to be denied because the numbers are ‘down,’” she said. “In fact, they’re not down. This is the highest number we’ve ever had.”
Jennifer Ho, HUD’s Senior Advisor for Housing and Services, told Stateline last year that the organization’s annual count serves as a snapshot of the homelessness crisis and the organization relies on other measures of data too.
She also added that the situation has improved to a certain degree for homeless families.
"The number of families who are in shelters or on the streets on any given night have actually gone down.
But experts say that shelters and the streets, especially in cold places like South Dakota, were never hotbeds for homeless families and youth.
Homeless people generally avoid the streets altogether in the winter in South Dakota since it’s nearly impossible to survive the frigid winters outside.
“If you’re on the street, you’re dead,” Deranleau said.
And homeless families tend to eschew shelters, since the ones that are typically open to children, often don’t allow men in, which would mean families would have to split up, said Ed Walz, vice president of communications for First Focus Campaign for Children, a children's advocacy organization.
Usually, homeless families and youth look to “double up," which means they’re crashing on couches or in spare rooms for as long as their friends or family members will allow them to. If that’s not an option, they’ll turn to sleeping in cars or cramming into low-budget motels, which run about $600 to $700 a month, according to Deranleau.
And while Pennington County Housing provides low-income residences, families that qualify wait an average of three to five years to get accepted, according Deranleau.
The kids who are forced to live in compromising situations face a plethora of risks.
Deranleau said the students she sees living in motels struggle to keep up with their academics because they don’t have a quiet space to study or do their homework. They’re also more likely than other kids to have mental health issues and developmental delays, miss classes and eventually drop out, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
They’re also more susceptible to human trafficking and abuse, Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, told The Huffington Post last year.
Determined to protect this vulnerable population, some organizations have taken it upon themselves to accrue their own data to prove to the federal government that they are in need of, and deserve, funding to help.
When the Arise Youth Center in Rapid City originally opened in 2013, it served as an alternative to detention for young people who had been charged with crimes.
But what Jonson started to notice was an overwhelming number of young homeless people stopping by and asking for help. She realized the organization needed to find a way to expand, so that it could serve that population as well.
So, together with the Pennington County sheriff’s department, the organization, which works in conjunction with Lutheran Social Services, found that there were 596 reported runaways in Rapids City in 2013.
That’s among a population of about 70,000.
Using the data it collected, Arise applied for a federal grant, which it received in October. By January, it was able to grow from eight beds to 16 beds and can now serve homeless youth.
The group offers a holistic program, which includes shelter, food, counseling, transportation to school, among other services.
The closest shelter that offers a similar refuge for homeless youth is about 135 miles away, according to Jonson.
“Being able to have a program where their voice can be heard…it’s such an honor,” Jonson said.
While Jonson is pleased that Arise was able to secure federal funding to help young homeless people, advocates say the onus shouldn’t be on local organizations to undertake the arduous data collection process.
The Homeless Children and Youth Act, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), aims to lift that very burden and free up more money for homeless kids.
Currently, organizations can only spend 10 percent of its funding on homeless families and youth. The bill would ease that restriction and give organizations autonomy over their spending.
It would also expand HUD’s definition of homelessness to count children who lack a stable residence, which would include a child staying a motel or sharing housing with others because they have nowhere to go. This would ensure that groups like Arise Youth Center won’t have to conduct their own data observations.
“We shouldn’t go to all this trouble to do this [HUD] count to get the wrong assessment,” Walz said. “It’s not the way any government program should work … The taxpayer should get the right numbers.”