Hoemke hopes walk across South Dakota will bring attention to homelessness issue

Hoemke hopes walk across South Dakota will bring attention to homelessness issue by M. Jill Sundstrom Mike Hoemke wants to let the people of South Dakota know that homelessness is more than a label placed on people whose lives have become an aimless journey.

With every step he takes for the next eight weeks or so, the 57-year-old Sioux Falls man will put a face on homelessness, as one who has lived through it. He is walking across South Dakota to increase awareness about homelessness and raise money for St. Francis House, a homeless shelter in Sioux Falls which helped him rebuild his life.

�St. Francis House offers ecumenical ministry for homeless people,� said Romauld Caroff, St. Francis House director. �Its purpose is to provide a special atmosphere for the homeless with meals and beds, as well as referrals to other needs in their life, such as clothing, employment and permanent housing.�

Hoemke was in Vermillion April 11 and 12, resting up from the first leg � about 80 miles � of his trek.

�I want to present first-hand knowledge of homelessness as I walk,� Hoemke said. �I�ve been on the street. I know it. You may see the homeless walk the streets and you are either disgusted or afraid. But they are real people with real stories. I want people to see a face � my face � that�s experienced homelessness and how people can change.�

Hoemke said St. Francis House has given him and others a sense of purpose.

�It�s about attitude � the belief in the fact that we can change,� he said. �It�s about salvation � how a person can strive for a more fulfilling life. And finally, it�s about gratitude � that�s why I�ve committed myself to this walk � to give back more than I�ve taken.�

Hoemke started walking April 7. He hopes to average about 30 miles a day � barring bad weather and blisters. He�s already experienced both.

�Yes, let me tell you my story, as I hobble to a chair,� Hoemke said with a laugh. �Except for the blisters, I feel pretty good so far. And I lost a day Saturday because of the rain. But I stayed in Beresford at the Windmill Campground. They were kind enough to let me sleep in their meeting room so I could nurse my wounds and dry out. I�ve had a lot of support already. People have been wonderful so far. And I�m gradually getting stronger. I think the first two weeks will be the hardest.�

Super 8 Motel and Comfort Inn donated rooms to Hoemke while he was in Vermillion. During his stay, he visited with people about homelessness, attended Mass at the Newman Center and took care of a few more blisters.

�I didn�t want to train for the walk,� Hoemke said. �I just started, because people don�t train to be homeless.

�People don�t realize that homelessness is in their neighborhoods,� he continued. �For a number of reasons, people end up on the streets. Alcoholism did it to me. Since 1980 I hadn�t lived anywhere for longer than a year at a time. I�d had success with sobriety, but I would keep returning to drinking and it finally wore me down to nothing.�

That�s when Hoemke turned to St. Francis House.

�I was in northern Minnesota last September,� he said. �I was very depressed, but I had a friend at St. Francis House and I found just enough energy to get there.�

Hoemke said he�s been on an emotional roller coaster throughout his years of homelessness and alcoholism, �but no one has done a bad turn to me,� he said. �Every problem I had I did to myself.�

At St. Francis House, Hoemke discovered the Hope Program. Administered by the St. Francis House staff, it�s for individuals who have troubles with gambling, alcohol and drugs.

�The Hope Program gives people the structure and challenges they need to return to a stable place in society,� Caroff said.

�I believe in the program,� Hoemke said. �St. Francis House treats people with dignity. It�s hard for people to regain their spirituality and purpose without that.�

Hoemke, who has been sober since he came to St. Francis House, no longer considers himself homeless.

�I have an apartment, I pay rent and work,� he said.

Still, he believed it was time to share his story.

�Mike came in to see me and proposed the walk,� Caroff said. �I told him it sounded like a good idea.

�Its purpose is three-fold,� he continued. �One, to generate awareness of rural and small city homelessness. It�s often hidden, but it is there. The second goal is to create a dialog with people regarding causes and solutions. Finally, Mike wants to generate some funding for St. Francis House. He wants to give something back.�

Last year, over 9,000 overnighters made use of St. Francis House.

�That�s a lot of wear and tear on a building,� Hoemke said. �It could use a fresh coat of paint and new carpeting.�

Hoemke will stay in contact with St. Francis House throughout his journey. He intends to journal his entire trip, but he has no set map for his trek, which will take him to the Black Hills and back again to Sioux Falls. And if the walk takes longer than the planned eight weeks, so be it.

�I don�t want to rush this,� he said. �The walk is a celebration of sobriety and the South Dakota spring. It�s also for a good cause. People need to know about homelessness and the good that St. Francis House is doing. I have joy in my life now. It�s been a long time, and it�s because of St. Francis House�s commitment to the dignity of every person there.�

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