DES MOINES — From tiny homes to renovated hotel properties, people across Iowa and the nation are coming together in new ways to tackle the issue of homelessness. Yet in the Corridor we seem to be missing a foundational piece of the puzzle.
In the small western Iowa town of Mapleton, five churches support “God’s Little House,” a property that was once slated to become a parking lot. Now it provides emergency or transitional shelter for area residents in the wake of natural disasters or visitors in other times of need.
Between now and Christmas, volunteers in Des Moines will be spending part of their weekend pulling an 8-foot by 12-foot tiny home, dubbed “Tabitha’s House,” to church parking lots. Once in place and plugged into a wall outlet, the fully-functional home on wheels is opened for tours by Joppa Outreach, which is planning a 50-property tiny home village in central Iowa.
Zoning changes this summer have helped bring a supportive-living concept closer to reality. Operating under the “housing first” philosophy, the new facility is expected to serve the chronically homeless and save taxpayers money by ending the vicious spiral of public services that too often serves as an inadequate patchwork for this population — jail, hospital emergency rooms, detox facilities, psychiatric services, etc.
The push to innovate, to shift thinking about homelessness and to break away from the traditional but expensive safety net programs that haven’t produced results isn’t limited to Iowa.
The state of Colorado is moving forward by helping the chronically homeless one project at a time, said Jennifer Lopez, director of the state’s homeless initiatives, and they’ve been able to make lasting change by taking the best ideas and practices from other states and reconfiguring them to work within their state’s financial and feasibility framework.
Lloyd Pendleton, former director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, proudly offers this statistic: Since 2005, Utah has reduced homelessness by 91 percent. As he explained in a quintessential Daily Show segment on Comedy Central, they’ve moved the needle on homelessness through “the radical notion” of providing homes.
All of these people and programs — just a mere handful of the presenters and speakers at the 2016 HousingIowa Conference last week — have a formula of sorts that’s fairly easy to grasp, although more challenging to implement. They’ve looked around, studied and found out what was needed and how those needs are being fulfilled. When they had a solid concept on how to move forward, they surrounded themselves with the leaders necessary to the task, and they began to advocate and pull more community and state leaders to their side.
ABOVE THE SILOS
The battles and setbacks in addressing homelessness in Iowa City and the Corridor have been well documented. While showing conference attendees slides of the costs accumulated by four homeless people in Iowa City, and comparing that to the reduced taxpayer cost of providing housing first, Shelter House Director Crissy Canganelli’s voice wavered and momentarily broke.
One of the four individuals in the study, a chronically homeless man identified as “Kent,” died last fall while still homeless.
“We can’t simply leave people to, to put it bluntly, die on the streets,” she said.
It wasn’t too long ago that Utah’s Pendleton told the homeless to “get a job,” because that’s all he thought they needed. He describes a “paradigm shift” in his thinking in the early 2000s that compelled him to seek out more realistic solutions.
His presentation to conference attendees featured slide after slide of once derelict hotel properties that have been renovated into apartments for those once homeless by local housing authorities and shelter organizations.
“A piece of the thinking behind ‘housing first’ is that you meet people where they are, that you move on their schedule,” he explained. “And, needless to say, there was some push back in Utah on this concept of providing homes to people who were still consuming alcohol or smoking. But we did it and, most importantly, meeting people where they are works.”
He believes every action must answer: Does this help the homeless into housing or not?
“If you don’t have a crystal-clear vision about the homeless situation, then you just muddle along. You’re not getting people housed,” he says.
For that reason, Pendleton advocates “champions, collaboration and compassion” as a three-step process, and he took direct aim at Iowa’s Continuum of Care system, saying they don’t have enough clout to go it alone.
“You’ve got to establish something above the silos,” he said, discussing how social service funding streams and thinking is often driven by specific organizations that don’t always collaborate well.
“We’ve got to be aware of the walls that we’re building,” he said, adding the type of self-awareness he advocates cannot be done in an isolating silo.
CALL FOR CHAMPIONS
Session after session at the conference, my thoughts returned to Cedar Rapids and Crestwood Ridge, the grant-funded mixed-income apartment proposal along Edgewood Road that’s now in jeopardy.
Work by property manager CommonBond Communities and support partner Willis Dady generally fits the pathways to success outlined through projects in other states. It’s a pilot project that has won the support of the Iowa Finance Authority. Although it would double the county’s number of publicly accessible supportive living housing units, it remains a smaller-scale project, taking only five homeless individuals or families off the streets. It fits the city’s vision of inclusive neighborhoods, making sure that pockets of poverty are mitigated. It also draws from a public desire for less dependency on expensive safety net programs, and more opportunities for personal advancement.
So, using Pendleton’s process, it is compassionate and collaborative. What it seems to be missing — and this isn’t unique to this one project — is champions that can work together above the established silos.
I remain hopeful that the Cedar Rapids City Council will be able to rise above politics to make this project a reality. That hope, I admit, springs from actions of past councils, like the one that chose to offer taxpayer assistance to keep a grocery store on First Avenue, and not necessarily because I believe current elected officials have the fortitude required for this decision.
Win or lose on Crestwood, however, Linn County won’t be moving forward, won’t be able to functionally end homelessness, until we follow Pendleton’s tested and proven process. It’s time to identify our champions, and to elevate them above the silos.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on September 11, 2016. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette