By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — University of Iowa graduate David Goodner saw a need for home-like, temporary housing for people struggling to find a permanent place to live in Iowa City. So, after serving as a live-in volunteer at a Catholic Worker House in Des Moines, he spearheaded an effort to start a community in his college town.
A little more than two months after opening up a Catholic Worker House in the southeast part of town, the need has become more apparent to him. Workers have to turn people away. “We get three to four calls a week, mostly from social workers in elementary schools (regarding) single moms and kids living in cars, vans, hotels, or bouncing from family member to family member in desperate need of housing,” he said. “We’ve seen time and time again that a full-time minimum wage mom can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment in this town. That’s a major struggle we are seeing first hand. Even if they are doing everything right, they are struggling to find housing.”
Meanwhile, he and other volunteers are working on ways to maximize the potential of the 2,800- square-foot Victorian house that serves as home base for the Catholic Worker House community. Currently, three single mothers and their children live in the home along with Goodner, a live-in volunteer.
The Catholic Worker House is different from a shelter in that it is a community where guests and volunteers share life, Goodner said. He and founding member Emily Sinnwell spend time with the guests, along with other volunteers who share meals and help around the house. Guests experience an increased comfort level in the house and a better opportunity for community members to build relationships, he added.
Sinnwell said Catholic Worker operates under the principles of mercy and the two feet of social justice. Msgr. Marvin Mottet, who recently passed away, was a huge inspiration. The house runs solely on donations.
Catholic Worker House took possession of the house July 1 after a fundraising campaign that exceeded expectations of $45,000 for a down payment and closing costs. To date, Iowa City Catholic Worker has raised about $80,000 with additional funds pledged for kitchen renovation. Monthly operating expenses are about $1,500. They hope to create more living spaces in the house which at present can serve about three families at a time. More families will be accommodated when the attic and basement are refinished.
Catholic Worker House has so far received referrals from Salvation Army, Inside OUT Re-entry, parishes and schools. Guests must be sober and not carry weapons. Chemistry between families is paramount, Goodner said. “They are living in close quarters. We have to make sure they will get along and not be at odds with each other. They have to feel comfortable. Personalism is part of our philosophy — one on one, dialoguing as people together, living together, problem solving as things come up.” So far, the biggest disagreements occur over who is in charge of doing the dishes.
The community isn’t meant to be a long-term solution for families, with 30-day stays or less, so guests must work toward specific goals to achieving permanent housing. Recently, a mom and dad with full-time jobs stayed at the home during a gap in housing and were able to move into their own house within a couple weeks. Someone recently released from jail and looking for transitional housing stayed at Catholic Worker for about a month until finding a job and making arrangements for a permanent place to live. There is some flexibility on the timeline, particularly for people who are doing everything they can to try to make ends meet. One mother has a child with sickle cell anemia. Medical bills have made housing independence more challenging.
Einna, a mother of two who found long-term, affordable housing during her 30-day stay at the house, said Catholic Worker was unlike anything she’d seen. “They helped me and my family so much.”
Goodner considers Catholic Worker House’s first three months in Iowa City successful and hopes to expand its offering. Once the kitchen is refinished, he hopes to offer a free Sunday meal to people in need in the community, since most free meal services in Iowa City do not offer meals on Sundays.
He hopes Catholic Worker can purchase more homes in Iowa City in the future.
Get involved with Iowa City Catholic Worker House
Catholic Worker House runs solely on donations and volunteerism. To make a donation, write a check to
Iowa City Catholic Worker, PO Box 3324, Iowa City, Iowa 52244 or online at www.gofundme.com/iccatholicworker.
To get involved as a volunteer or prospective community member, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, address, and telephone number and an organizer will contact you.