New Shelter House still in future tense, officials say

BY ANNA LOTHSON | APRIL 13, 2009 7:40 AM

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Without a job or steady income, Donna Austin and her four children were forced from Chicago to Iowa City. For a month now, they’ve lived in the Shelter House, uncertain of anything beyond today.

But Austin said she’s lucky to have secured a spot in the home, especially after the shelter closed its overflow locations at the end of March.

The change has forced officials to turn away about five people a day in the last week, said Crissy Canganelli, executive director for the Shelter House.

Though the plans for the new 14,000-square-foot Shelter House may alleviate much of the stress, Canganelli said its completion date is still unknown.

“People will not have the feeling of being on top of each other,” she said, noting the current Shelter House is not able to meet the needs of the Iowa City homeless population.

So far, she said they’ve raised $1.85 million of the nearly $3.5 million needed for the new facility, which will allow residents to live in dorm-style rooms equipped with space to separate men, women, and families.

But for now, the old house — with small rooms filled with tattered, mismatched furniture — will remain home for Austin’s family.

Austin, who has stayed in the house since March 9, said she was “blessed” to secure a place, but added it’s “very sad” having to watch people be turned away.

“Everybody here is human. No one is better than anyone,” Austin said, noting she hopes to find a home before the new shelter is built, but the economic crisis may put a sting in her plans.

Despite the home’s cramped conditions, Canganelli said opponents in the areas proposed for the future shelter have expressed concerns of lowering property value and increasing crime — all of which she said could be proven to not be an issue.

Iowa City City Councilor Mike Wright, who lives just blocks away from the shelter, said he hopes officials will be able to open the new building quickly.

“They are terrific neighbors,” he said, noting he has never seen any problems in the neighborhood as a result of the shelter’s presence.

And while Wright said the city councilors are always “distressed” about the homeless population, there is not much the council can do since the shelter is a private organization.

Still, Wright said the council does provide some aid the home.

Groundbreaking on the new shelter is scheduled for this summer — officials will lose money if they’re not on schedule — but construction likely won’t begin until spring 2010, Canganelli said.

“People’s ability to give has been quite conservative, and rightfully so with economy,” she said. “But we’ll get through it.”

The Spring Gala for the Shelter House will be held on Saturday April 18 at Hotel Vetro.

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