Soyer: Homelessness remains an issue in Iowa City

BY HANNAH SOYER | MARCH 06, 2015 5:00 AM

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No one would deny that homelessness is a problem in Iowa City. It is a problem in many cities, although most cities that have a large homeless population have more than one homeless shelter. Iowa City does not.

If you Google “Iowa City homeless shelters,” only one pops up that is actually in Iowa City. If you Google “Des Moines homeless shelters,” however, more than seven locations appear, many of which have more than one shelter in the downtown Des Moines area. Des Moines has more than triple the population of Iowa City and thus, I’m sure, has a greater need for more shelters. However, if we look at the number of homeless shelters as a ratio to the population, Des Moines far exceeds Iowa City. Besides, another homeless shelter is an obvious need here, given the demand on the current one.

Shelter House, the only homeless shelter in Iowa City, opened a temporary emergency shelter on South Gilbert Street for the winter. It recently announced that it would close this facility on March 14.

“There was an unmet need in the community to provide additional emergency shelter during the winter to those individuals who are unable or unwilling to access Shelter House,” Resident Services Director Mark Sertterh said.

Shelter House has had around 110 different people stay at the temporary emergency shelter so far this year. The permanent location has only 70 beds; there is evidently a need for more space. And even though it is fantastic that the shelter is able to keep its temporary shelter open until the middle of March, chances are that cold weather will still be around, leaving those who are homeless without a place to take cover.

Lisa Fasone, a Shelter House volunteer, recognizes the limited space as a problem. “During the winter, the state allows the shelter to have ‘overflow’ and allow more than the normal limit of persons to reside in the building,” she said. “There are not enough beds, so the clients sleep in the lobby or wherever there’s room.”

Shelter House has received between $35,000 and $41,000 each year from the city since 2010. Its website states that $175 is what is needed to support one person staying one week at Shelter House. When one does the math, keeping in mind that Shelter House has 70 beds, it is clear that this budget is nowhere near sufficient.

Sertterh said Shelter House also receives funds from the state and federal government, along with private donations. Still, the current funds are not enough to support the homeless here in Iowa City. This is obviously not the fault of Shelter House, as it does all that it can to provide services to Iowa City’s homeless population with the funds that it has. The answer is simply that it needs more funds.

Sertterh suggested that the best and most cost-effective way of dealing with homelessness is looking at funding housing assistance programs, which can include rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing, and programs being set in place to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. It’s time that the city recognizes this and makes finding a solution to the homelessness of Iowa City a priority.

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