SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - It’s been a long five years for Robert Running Shield.
The Pine Ridge native has lived on the streets of Sioux Falls since his release from prison in 2010. He’s slept on laundromat floors, couches, shelter beds and the street.
He’s spent plenty of nights in jail, too. He’s picked up more than 130 arrests for trespassing or loitering since his release, alongside dozens of other petty offenses, almost all connected to alcohol.
Running Shield walked out of the Glory House this month with new hope and an old struggle.
The Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1PlzhH9 ) reports that he’s got six months of sobriety and a job ringing bells for the Salvation Army, but he’s never stayed sober longer than nine months and the job ends on Christmas Eve.
He’s got a line on an efficiency apartment, but the housing program that would have paid his first month’s rent is out of money.
The landlord told Running Shield he’s worried about renting to him, given that the potential tenant is likely to rely on day labor after Christmas Eve.
In the middle of a bell-ringing shift on a bitterly cold Thursday morning, Running Shield’s voice was calm but concerned. Six months after his arrest on felony drug possession charges, “I’m back at ground zero again,” Running Shield said.
The 50-year-old’s struggle to pull himself out of the cycle of arrest and release mirrors one faced by a small but highly visible group of Sioux Falls residents.
Running Shield is recognized as a “frequent flyer,” by the criminal justice system - a petty offender whose troubles with alcoholism make him a semi-permanent nuisance to businesses and the public.
His work to rejoin the law-abiding, tax-paying public offers a glimpse into the difficulty of ending the cycle of catch and release that never ends for some of the city’s chronically homeless. His success in a treatment program marked by Native American spiritual practice and his commitment to stay clean have given him hope, but there’s a long road ahead.
Most beat cops know him by name. Running Shield is one of the offenders targeted by the Sioux Falls Police Department’s more aggressive trespassing enforcement strategy, which led to a 1,200 percent increase in arrests for the nuisance violation since 2010.
Since that strategy’s taken hold, Running Shield’s been barred from several businesses over the years, including Mercado’s and Munchie’s convenience stores.
His days in jail and prison tax the justice system’s local infrastructure and return little in terms of public safety, but the system nonetheless continues to intervene - to the point of harassment, in Running Shield’s opinion.
“Sometimes, I’d just be sitting somewhere and they’d come and get me,” Running Shield said. “If I’m on foot, they get me, so I try to stay on my bike.”
Running Shield doesn’t think his behavior is worthy of all the attention he gets from police. Once, he claims, he was charged with panhandling after a friend paid him back $20 he’d loaned him a few months earlier.
“When they let me out of jail, they took my $20,” Running Shield said.
Others see things differently. Chronic nuisance violations might not be the most serious offenses, but they do cause trouble.
“Robert’s one of the several people I can think of where there’s just a night and day difference between them sober and them drinking,” said Edward Angel, the Minnehaha County Deputy State’s Attorney who handled Running Shield’s most recent criminal case.
His arrest in June on a methamphetamine possession charge was a change in pattern for Running Shield, Angel said, one that concerned the prosecutor.
The felony “really surprised me,” Angel said, noting that Running Shield’s history with chemicals had been restricted almost exclusively restricted to alcohol before that point. He’d been charged with theft, mostly for stealing alcohol or chips. He’d been charged with trespassing, often for hanging out around the stores where those thefts took place.
The meth in the pipe wasn’t his, Running Shield says. He was holding onto it for a friend when he was confronted by police in June about a theft report at a local church. Officers didn’t find the headphones the church staff had reported missing in his backpack, but they did find a pipe.
He refused to say to whom the pipe belonged, so the arrest for possession of a controlled substance was his to own.
Ironically, however, it was that arrest that gave Running Shield the new beginning he has now. It’s a chance Angel wanted him to have, and one Judge John Hinrichs agreed to give him.
He’d gone through intensive inpatient alcohol treatment in jail, and there was a bed open at the Glory House at the time of his sentencing. Angel recommended a second chance instead of jail.
“We really wanted to get him a fresh start,” Angel said.
Running Shield was surprised, especially after Hinrichs called him a “chronic trespasser.”
“I thought I was going to jail for a year,” Running Shield said. “I got 36 months’ probation, I about fainted.”
Running Shield didn’t get on as well at the Glory House as he might have hoped. The rules for checking in, checking out and doing chores were difficult adjustments for a man accustomed to the relative freedom of the streets or the hard-nosed strictures of prison and jail life.
But he did find something there that helped keep him on track: Owaste. The program is an expansion of a treatment plan that incorporates Native American spiritual practice into the language and practice of recovery.
Counselor Theresa Henry took an existing curriculum called “White Bison” and added elements of Dakota, Nakota and Lakota teaching to re-launch the program, which had been dormant for years before her arrival at the Glory House late last summer.
Running Shield connected to that approach to sobriety, as it allowed him to connect the language of a higher power to the traditions of the culture he’d been shielded from as a boy. His grandmother was taken away to a white boarding school and beaten for holding on to Native ways.
“She didn’t want me to learn my language or learn the old ways because she didn’t want me to go through what she went through,” Running Shield said.
When Running Shield graduated last month, an elder came in for the ceremony. That part of the program - recognition from a Native American, as opposed to a representative from the “white” criminal justice system - is important, Henry said.
“A lot of these people have never been honored in that way before,” said Henry.
That honor is miles and years removed from Running Shield’s youth in Pine Ridge. There, he was part of what he calls “a Native American gang,” consisting of himself and his cousins.
“It was like a mob on the reservation,” he said.
As a young man, jobs were scarce, and he remembers doing all sorts of petty crimes for money. At one point, he turned to a man who needed fence posts and was willing to pay him $1 for each one he found.
“My wife was complaining about money, and the baby needed diapers and all that, so I went and stole 100 fence posts and sold them,” he said.
Running Shield admits that he hasn’t been there for his four grown children. His monetary contributions haven’t kept up, either, and his years in prison didn’t help. The felony convictions he has in South Dakota relate to insufficient funds checks, checks Running Shield says came from his ex-wife.
The years in prison didn’t help his children’s situation. He left the prison owing more than $66,000 in back child support.
The payments he’s made to cut into that bill since 2010 have made it more difficult for him to find housing and food. When he’d pick up jobs at Command Center, a full day’s work would leave him with between $19 and $23 to spend.
“I’d still have to go to places like the Banquet to get food,” he said.
For now, ringing the Salvation Army bell has replaced day labor. He rises each morning at 6 a.m., puts on three layers of clothing and a set of coveralls borrowed from a friend and heads out on his bike. Until his release from the Glory House, he’d ride to the bus stop at 41st Street and West Avenue, ride downtown then bike the rest of the trip to the Salvation Army headquarters on Cliff Avenue.
There, he gathers with the other greeters - many of whom are offered second chances through the job - to hear a message from Major Tom Riggs prior to the work day. There are two shifts - one from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the other from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Running Shield tries to work both every chance he gets.
Major Riggs hires people like Running Shield every year, with a mind to a famous quote from Salvation Army founder William Booth’s: “A man may be down, but he’s not out.”
“We hire people who have difficulty finding a job,” Riggs said. “We try to give people that opportunity, at least through the season of Christmas, and that allows them to have that accomplishment.”
Running Shield enjoys the work. He’s a talkative guy who enjoys making people smile, especially children.
“You hear that bell,” Running Shield tells the children. “That calls Santa.”
He enjoys the interaction, but he also hopes the good cheer will open doors.
“I chose this job because I could be out with people,” Running Shield said. “I also hoped I’d maybe run into somebody who’d give me a business card or something so I could get a job later on.”
That hasn’t materialized yet. He’s had a few leads, but they’ve dissolved, similar to the efficiency apartment and county welfare help he’d hoped for before his release from the Glory House.
For now, Running Shield is staying with a friend, trading beers for a night’s sleep - beers he doesn’t share, he said.
“I feel like I’m done with it. I’m not even trying to drink any more,” Running Shield said.
Angel hopes that’s true. Alcohol has been at the root of Running Shield’s problems, Angel said, not unlike many of the people the prosecutor sees each day.
“Is Robert going to be back in the criminal justice system? I wouldn’t be surprised. But he’s one of those people who, if he can stay sober and get some stable housing, he could do very well,” Angel said.
Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com
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