Editor’s Note: Nearly 13,000 people experienced homelessness in Iowa in 2015, according to the Institute for Community Alliances. In a series beginning this week, The Catholic Messenger will explore the issue of homelessness. We’ll share stories of people who are homeless, talk with people and agencies responding to homelessness, and offer suggestions for alleviating challenges that cause homelessness.
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Before dawn one cold winter morning, more than 20 advocates for the homeless walked the downtown streets of Davenport, Bettendorf and outlying areas in Scott County. Another 12 advocates walked the downtown streets of Muscatine. All had the same task: to search for persons spending the night in the cold.
The search took place Jan. 26 on behalf of the Institute for Community Alliances, which oversees a “Point in Time” count of persons who are homeless in Iowa. Individuals who spent the night in their cars, homeless shelters, transitional housing or permanent supported housing were included in the homeless count. Statistics gleaned from the count help the federal government assess the homeless situation nationwide and determine funding for each state.
While this year’s count is still being tallied (to avoid duplication) “approximately 500 unsheltered and sheltered individuals and families are experiencing homelessness in Scott County,” said Cathy Jordan. She serves as program lead for VALOR in Humility of Mary Shelter in Davenport and coordinated this year’s count with Rick Schloemer, manager of the Scott County Housing Council.
Davenport and Bettendorf police officers, staffers from social service agencies and trained volunteers participated in the January count. Jordan and the person she paired up with checked area truck stops in Scott County, looking for running vehicles with homeless individuals inside, along with their stashed belongings. “We saw more vehicles than we did in the past,” she said. “We found five this year. I’m hoping it’s because we’re smarter and know where to look. The economy is still very tough for individuals and their families,” she noted.
Schloemer stood outside the Café on Vine meal site in Davenport asking guests whether they were homeless or in need of assistance. “I had six individuals who said they’d spent the night on the street.” By the end of his 1-1/2-hour shift, Schloemer experienced the stinging pain of the cold in his toes, fingers and on his neck, despite being bundled up. “I thought, ‘how could someone be out in this all night long?’” Altogether, 18 people (including the six Schloemer counted) were found on the streets in Scott County that morning.
Charla Schafer’s group in the Muscatine area (conducting their first count) didn’t find anyone outside, but “we are reasonably sure that people were sleeping in uninhabitable locations such as cars,” she said.
“The fact that we didn’t find anyone is a plus that our sheltering services are effective,” added Schafer, who serves as executive director of Muscatine Center for Social Action (MCSA). The agency, which served 227 adults and children dealing with a housing gap last year, provides emergency and temporary shelter, basic health care, educational and support services for those in need in Muscatine County.
While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) requires a biennial count of homeless individuals, the state of Iowa chooses to do it annually during the last 10 days of January, Jordan explained.
Advocates for the homeless support the annual count (Scott County conducts a second count in July) because it helps them demonstrate the need for more affordable housing and for programs to assist adults and children with no place to live. “Rent in Davenport is going up. There’s less affordable housing for people who make minimal money,” Jordan said. “Maybe they’re working a minimum wage job. It’s getting more difficult for folks to find housing they can afford and that meets their needs.”
“The housing problem is becoming worse,” says Jerry Anthony of the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center. The rental housing supply came to a standstill in the wake of the Great Recession and the cost of home ownership rose while incomes growth has lagged behind, he noted.
“The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) reports that for every 100 households in Iowa at 50 percent of median income there are only 87 properties that are affordable and available, so you can at least assume there is a shortage of 13. For those households at 30 percent of median income, there are only 40 properties affordable and available for every 100 households,” Schloemer noted.
Affordable housing is one challenge that impacts homelessness. “Sometimes it’s the economy; sometimes it’s lack of jobs; sometimes it’s the result of people traveling through the area who got stuck here,” Schloemer said. “Maybe they get this far and run out of money or are looking for temporary work and can’t find a job. Those are usually the situations that cause an individual to end up in our shelters,” he added. Individuals struggling with addiction, alcoholism or mental illness may require long-term, sustained housing support.
Another challenge that civic leaders sometimes overlook is the impact of gentrification of downtowns. While it benefits a city’s attractiveness to potential businesses and homeowners, it can marginalize some individuals and families, Jordan observed. People with limited or no income get pushed farther away from the downtown in search of more affordable housing, which keeps them farther away from social services usually located in the city’s hub.
Schafer of Muscatine said participating in the count for the first time proved to be a valuable experience. “It made everyone much more aware of the circumstances people may be placed in.” In addition, “The more specific information we provide to the state will help with funding at both the state and local level. It also provides information on the services that are being provided to determine if those are effective.”
Asked what people in the pews can do to alleviate homelessness, Schloemer, says “ask legislators at both the state and national level to live their faith and not cut the programs that provide services for people in need, which is what is happening at the state and local levels. They think the only way to balance a budget is to cut services to the most vulnerable and yet that is the most expensive thing they can do. By providing those services people can survive, stay in housing, stay healthier, educate their children, get or stay employed until they can eventually provide for themselves.”
The definition of homelessness
Think of homelessness as a nesting doll, suggests the Institute for Community Alliances. The large doll includes everyone living in extreme poverty. Consider that doll 30 percent of area median income (AMI), which means a person has enough money coming in to qualify for low-income housing. This “doll” often includes families who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAPS) and visit the food pantry. They are vulnerable to economic shocks. If something bad happens; a car breaks down, someone gets sick, or disability challenges arise, that is called an economic shock.
Economic shocks expose the next nested-doll. A person with low income experiencing economic shocks may weather those shocks if they have sufficient social resources. Social resources include family or friends who are willing to share housing for a time, or even permanently. Social resources may even be short-term assistance, like general relief or Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Managing life with income half or less of the 30 percent AMI becomes incredibly precarious. If disabilities complicate life or social networks are worn thin, or if people are unwilling to further exercise those resources, then a person or family can find themselves in a position where they have no place to call home. Look further into the nested dolls. If a person spends the night in a car, a camp or any other place described as “not meant for human habitation” then that person is experiencing homelessness.
— Source: www.icalliances.org/reports/
Homeless count in the diocese
The following statistics are based by county on data collected by the Institute for Community Alliances. Agencies in Iowa that receive Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding are required to participate. Some other agencies also participate voluntarily.
The first figure refers to the number of persons participating in programs that lead to more stable housing. The second figure refers to the actual number of homeless:
Clinton: 190 served; 171 homeless.
Des Moines: 140 served; 67 homeless.
Scott: 1,950 served; 1,404 homeless.
Johnson: 1,265 served; 1,099 homeless.
Muscatine: 272 served; 235 homeless.
Washington: 77 served; 77 homeless.
The Institute for Community Alliances is working diligently to add counties to the list that conduct a homeless count, said Rick Schloemer, manager of the Scott County Housing Council. He is on a committee that is working to make that happen.