Temporary shelter helps homeless

BY BEN MARKS | JANUARY 28, 2015 5:00 AM

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Officials say the Iowa City winter emergency shelter has largely been a success so far since opening three and a half weeks ago.

“It’s been pretty quiet and uneventful,” said Crissy Canganelli, the executive director of the Shelter House. “There has not been, from my understanding, any negative impact on the neighboring properties.”

The temporary location, 1534 S. Gilbert St., is near several businesses, including Carlos O’Kelly’s, 1411 Waterfront Drive.

Carlos O’Kelly’s  general manager Ricky Wetmore said they’ve had no major issues from the shelter’s occupants.

Iowa City police downtown liaison Officer David Schwindt confirmed their belief at a recent Johnson County Board of Supervisors meeting.

He said service calls for “vagrant,” a police computer-assigned term, were down almost 95 percent since the shelter opened compared with last year at this time.

Schwindt attributes the drop directly to the shelter providing a space for residents to sleep, not to any fluctuation in the weather.

“Regardless of the weather,” Schwindt said, “They’re still sleeping this year like they were last year. We’re just not getting those calls, in any locations … citizens are feeling safer now that they aren’t finding people sleeping in the hallways of their apartment building.”

Nancy Bird, the executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District, said downtown is experiencing a “very healthy climate,” and she believes that is due in part to the opening of the winter shelter.

“It’s given people a place to go that they know they can depend on to stay warm in these months,” she said.

The shelter has had some problems, and Schwindt said out of the six calls for service, one was medical, one resulted in an arrest, and the other four were handled on scene.

Two staff members monitor the shelter and receive regular police visits.

Although the shelter has 25 beds, Phoebe Trepp, program development director at the Shelter House, reported the facility reached capacity in the first weekend.

“We are allowing extra people to stay above 25,” she said. “They just might not get a cot.”

Canganelli said she believes the drop in service calls and the high shelter use show exactly how important and useful the shelter is to the community.

“I think this is a very substantial indicator that this is a non-intrusive way of addressing an issue that was problematic across a broad area,” she said. “Simply by providing a space and reducing the barriers for people to be able to come, in you’re not seeing the impact of people trying to sleep in or be in areas not intended for that use.”

The low barrier she referenced refers to no entry requirements for overnight residents.

Unlike Housing First, however, the winter shelter is only a temporary solution and one that isn’t ideal, Canganelli stressed.

She said a long-term solution would be much more cost-effective than continuing a temporary shelter yearly.

Despite a petition signed by 29 local businesses — filed in December 2014 requesting that the shelter be denied funding — Trepp said the shelter has had a positive community response.

Many business owners later retracted their signatures or said employees signed it without their knowledge.

“We had a lot of people come forward who said, ‘We can’t do this forever, but we can do this for two months,’ ” she said.

In addition to volunteers, Trepp also said the shelter has received support and funding from Johnson County, Iowa City, Coralville, United Way, and the Community Foundation.

Hodge Construction covered the entire cost of renting the Aldi’s building, which allowed the winter shelter to come in under budget Canganelli said.

The shelter will be open until the end of February.

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