The Town of Corson, SD has been struggling with an incredible homeless problem for years. One by one, businesses packed up and left, leaving the town’s residents high and dry. Through State grants and town planning, Corson part-time Mayor Delbert Dezotell spent years expanding their response to the problem. Despite his efforts, Corson was never able to get ahead of their homeless problem.
As with most volunteers fire stations in the United States, they’re consistently coming up short on staffing. Chief Chris Andrews of the Corson Volunteer Fire Department said, “The people aren’t coming out of their homes like they used to. Video games, television, and the Internet have eroded their sense of community. We used to support each other.”
This winter was particularly unbearable, and the town’s volunteer shelters had been over capacity daily, resorting to turning people away. Mayor Dezotell stated that turning people away was not an ideal situation; he had been opening his home to accommodate the over-flow.
A brutal cold snap swept through Corson in the first week of February, killing a homeless man who’d been turned away from an overcrowded shelter. The Mayor refused to accept this situation or allow this to happen again. Chief Andrews was ordered to open up the fire station as a shelter for the homeless. Reluctantly, but wishing to comply with the town managers directive, Chief Andrews opened the firehouse out of compassion for the situation.
Twenty-three homeless men and women filtered into the fire station, setting up sleeping bags, taking much-needed showers, and washing clothes. At 2:23 am on the first night of occupancy, a call came in for a structure fire at the Corson railyard repair area. The in-house alerting system woke all of the temporary residents. Chief Andrews arrived at the station from home and waited for a crew, but only 2 volunteers arrived. The next nearest mutual aid station was 30 minutes away.
In dire need for manpower, Chief Andrews asked his temporary residents for anyone willing to help put out a fire. All twenty-three homeless individuals stepped forward, grabbing turnout gear off the rack and filling all the seats on every truck leaving the station. Three fully staffed engines arrived on scene. The crews worked tirelessly to extinguish the fire.
After a few days had passed, Chief Andrews couldn’t shake the feeling about what had happened that night when the idea dawned on him. Why not offer the homeless semi-permanent residence in exchange for signing up as volunteer firefighters?
For the first time since the mid-1980’s, the town of Corson Volunteer Fire Station has been fully-staffed for an entire month. Mayor Dezotell lauded Chief Andrews for his forward out-of-the-box thinking. One U.S. town solving both its homeless problem and it’s volunteer firefighter problem in one decision. That’s a pretty incredible feat. Could this become a new trend throughout volunteer stations country-wide?