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Shelter House event raises awareness of homeless community

BY LAUREN COFFEY | OCTOBER 11, 2012 6:30 AM

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Not much separates your average college student driving her or his car over a bridge, and the homeless person living underneath it.

“They are men and women, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers,” said Crissy Canganelli, the executive director of the Shelter House. “They’re just like you and me, except we have a safety net, and they don’t. That’s the only difference.”

The Shelter House held an event to raise awareness about homelessness in the community at the Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St., on Wednesday night. Shelter House is the only homeless shelter in Johnson County that will serve men, women, and children.

Participants shared their stories about being homeless, local musician Dave Moore performed, and Shelter House representatives answered questions from the audience to a packed house.

Canganelli said an idea for a 20-minute documentary about the former residents of the Shelter House spawned the idea to hold a public event further exploring the topic.

“The video grew out of people wanting to know who the homeless people were,” she said. “What better way to see who they are without any barriers.”

David McGee, a former resident at Shelter House, was interviewed onstage by Canganelli, and he discussed the journey of his battle of alcoholism and homelessness.

“Have you ever just woken up in the morning, and you’re disappointed you’re still alive?” McGee said. “[Being homeless and an alcoholic] was a nightmare. I wouldn’t be alive for it not have been for the Shelter House.”

McGee started working at the Shelter House in September.

“I was just checking my mail at the Shelter House [when I met Crissy],” said McGee, who’d been homeless off and on for 30 years. “She asked me to paint the building. My plan was to paint the building, make $200 to $300, and then go crawl back in the woods. But she offered me an internship.”

The Shelter House was established in 1983; until November 2010, it was run out of a single-family home that could house 29 people. Now, it is located in a building that holds 70 people, a limit the facility meets most nights. In the past year, it has served more than 900 people.

Officials hope the event helped the community understand the issues of being homeless and educate them on how to help.

“We hope to get the community to understand the issues, and how much of a problem it is in the Iowa City area,” said Mark Sertterh, resident services director at the Shelter House. “We had a good turnout; we got a diverse group of people. Hopefully, they learned a lot of things from this.”

In some cases, volunteers have a change in their thoughts on the homeless after working for the Shelter House.

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions — who are the homeless, what it means to be homeless,” Shelter House volunteer Meg Jacobs said. “I know I had to change some of my assumptions when I started volunteering at the shelter.”

The night ended with a Q&A session, in which an audience member asked how one could help the homeless.

“If you don’t want to give them a dollar, give them a smile,” McGee said. “Give them some encouragement and point them in the direction of the nearest shelter.”


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