Kadyn Wittman is a Democratic state lawmaker representing District 15 in Sioux Falls. She was also one of about 20 state lawmakers from throughout the country to attend a Homeless Fellowship conference hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures earlier this week. We caught up with her about what she learned and what she's bringing back to South Dakota.
Answers are edited for length and clarity.
First, how did you 'get smart' about this topic? What in your background and in your work as a state legislator has informed your understanding of homelessness as it affects Sioux Falls?
My experience with unhoused community members in Sioux Falls started in March 2020 when I started working at the Bishop Dudley Hospitality House. It was a really intense time to work at a homeless shelter.
- It was an incredible learning experience because I got to walk along these really vulnerable unhoused community members and get a better understanding of what programs are run and what resources are out there.
The reason I ended up running for office was because I realized we have very few resources and programs available for unhoused community members.
- I still feel very much connected to those individuals who I created relationships with.
We’re all about simplicity here. Even though it’s not a simple topic, do you think you could give us the 10-word version of the current situation unhoused people in Sioux Falls face?
While there are limited resources, there are opportunities and avenues towards progress and success.
What's a common misconception about homelessness that you see in our community? And how could you help dispel that misconception?
I think a lot of people don’t realize how easy it is to find yourself homeless the way society is currently structured. The path to homelessness is not as long as we think it is for many of us.
What I would tell people and what I try to educate people on is seeing the humanity in unhoused community members.
- When we see ourselves in them, we're able to create more empathy and advocate for people who are in a vulnerable position.
I would also educate people on how big of a part mental illness and substance use disorder can play into that spiral into homelessness.
You served on Sioux Falls’ citywide homeless task force, and you’re also a state representative – how are you as a public official working to solve this problem?
I was nominated by the South Dakota Speaker of the House this past legislative session to be a homeless fellow through the National Conference of State Legislatures.
- It was a bunch of us legislators from all different sized cities, states, different political parties all coming together to learn about what we can do as policy makers to remove barriers and create pathways out of the cycle of poverty for unhoused community members.
I'm also still very much engaged with the Bishop Dudley's work, and it's difficult not to be connected because I live downtown. I see so many of these individuals.
If you could wave a magic wand and create one new resource for unhoused folks in Sioux Falls, what would it be?
I'm going to try and waive that magic wand next session. Access to vital documents is literally the first big hurdle that a lot of these unhoused individuals have to overcome.
I'm planning to bring a bill that would waive the fee for a state ID and help unhoused community members get a free state ID.
There's also an existing law that allows parents to get a free copy of their child's birth certificate with proof of enrollment in Head Start (a federally subsidized preschool program).
- I would like to add a line that says individuals who can prove they are unhoused through documentation of a shelter or nonprofit can also get a free copy of their birth certificate.
If we can remove that initial barrier of accessing their vital documents, we can get more people housed, get them medication and get them back into the workforce.
How can the average citizen make a difference for unhoused people? What’s a good way for someone like me to be helpful?
Treat them with dignity and kindness.
- Take the time to say, "What can I do to help you in the next 10 minutes with the resources I have available."
I would also encourage people to educate themselves on what community resources are available in our city and prepare themselves on how they are willing to act with that community member.
Anything else you want the good people of Sioux Falls to know about this topic?
I really, really want to emphasize that these are human beings.
- This is not a person that chose to be homeless. There are not as many resources available as people think and nobydy chooses to be homeless.
Approach the issue of homelessness with empathy, understanding and curiosity rather than fear and discomfort.