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As Iowa City City Council discusses homelessness, one UI program fills a need

BY NICK HASSETT | FEBRUARY 27, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Iowa City City Council has begun discussing ways to address homelessness in the community, and one answer may be as close as the University of Iowa.

At a work session meeting on Feb. 19, officials presented statistics about the homeless population in Iowa City to the council. Based on a “street count,” officials found 26 people living without shelter outdoors. However, that number doesn’t include those living in shelters or “doubled up,” living with friends or family.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, approximately 1 in 200 people in the United States used a shelter system between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2009.

The council invited several homelessness experts from the community to the work session. Among them was William Ming Liu, a UI professor in the Counseling Psychology Program at the UI.

Liu and several graduate students provide free group-therapy sessions, one-on-one counseling, and psychological evaluations for those at the Iowa City Shelter House.

“This is relatively unique,” Liu said. “There are a handful of other programs — we’re not the only ones — but it’s not nationwide.”

Crissy Canganelli, the executive director at the Shelter House, said the Counseling Psychology Department’s help has been important to the shelter.

“It’s definitely filling a gap,” she said. “At any time, we have 70 people living here, and at least a third or more of them are dealing with varying levels of mental illness. Anything we can do to provide stabilization services is important.”

Liu said the program officially began in 2003, when he started individual counseling at the Shelter House and began bringing in graduate psychology students to help.

Students are assigned to individuals at the shelter, with the aim of providing psychological counseling that they would be unable to seek elsewhere. Liu said each student sees six or seven clients, and two students currently provide individual counseling services, while two more work with group sessions.

Kevin Fall, a graduate research assistant in the Counseling Psychology Program, said he has worked at the Shelter House for two and a half years.

“When I got to choose my practicum site, I went to the Shelter House, and the first opportunity I had to hang out with residents, I loved it,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get. These are real people with real problems.”

Fall says he works at the shelter around 12 hours a week, working mostly with individuals at the Shelter House through counseling. He estimates he’s worked with 200 to 300 people over the course of his time with the shelter.

“I like helping difficult clients,” he said. “It’s about how we can motivate someone to begin their life again.”

However, Fall said, his motivation for helping the homeless goes beyond earning credit hours.

“I just hope I can plant some seed in their mind that they are a valuable person, that they aren’t worthless, they’re not junk,” Fall said. “Just to get them to think that, ‘Maybe, I’m a valuable person.’ I have to call that a success.”


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