Homeless find shelter in City Hall

BY MEGAN DEPPE | MARCH 06, 2014 5:00 AM

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In the subzero temperatures of this winter, the homeless of Iowa City were in need of a warm place to stay when shelters filled up.

They found their sanctuary in the lobby of Iowa City City Hall.

At the beginning of January, officials decided to allow those who had no other means of shelter to spend the night in the City Hall lobby. This has resulted in a decrease in issues with the Iowa City police.

Geoff Fruin, the assistant to the city manager, said the program helped to relieve some pressure on the homeless shelters in the area.

“From our standpoint, it provided protection from local weather,” Fruin said. “We felt it was appropriate to step in.”

Currently, there are no plans to use this program again next year. Fruin said that the idea would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“[The lobby]’s not equipped to be a homeless shelter; that’s not our function,” Fruin said. “We will certainly continue to use discretion.”

Police Lt. Mike Brotherton, the late-night watch commander, said the brutally hard winter had more and more homeless people entering buildings such as parking garages, apartment hallways, and laundromats, and police received trespassing complaints.

“[The lobby] saved us from having to go chasing them around,” Brotherton said. After issuing a trespassing charge, most homeless people just found another place to stay and received another charge.

Brotherton said there are normally eight to 12 people sleeping in the City Hall lobby, and five or six of those people are permanently homeless.

Those who sleep in the lobby are awakened at 6 a.m. the next day, and are asked to leave. They have to option of staying in the Old Capitol Town Center, the Rec Center or in the library.

“One thing we do know is that there really isn’t a spot or place where they’re welcome, and having that spot [the lobby] has helped them and the police,” Brotherton said. “It’s been really positive for us.”

There is little to no cost to this program, he said. He said the program might save more money than it spends, because of fewer calls for police service and a decrease in the ambulance rides.

Michael Stoops, the director for community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, said that many communities are pressed for space in shelters during the winter season.

“There’s a practice of opening up makeshift shelters to take in more people,” Stoops said.

Stoops said that one issue in the country is that not all shelters open for the same temperatures, which sometimes makes it difficult for homeless people to know when their shelters open and are available.

Brotherton said that in the past two or three months, many arrests were made for homeless people for public intoxication as well as trespassing, and sometimes these arrests require the individual to take a trip to the hospital. Having the lobby as a backup option has helped keep these arrests down as well.

“It saves on getting arrested night after night and getting sent to the hospital,” Brotherton said. “This frees up medical staff.”

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