Could Wahls be a champion?

No one wanted to brave the frigid elements this past Wednesday, not even those who have repeatedly confronted rain and snow in previous years to count the number of homeless on the streets.

Point-in-time counts of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people, required by the federal government, take place annually on the last Wednesday of January. But not this year. Dangerous temperatures have pushed Iowa’s count to Feb. 6.

It goes without saying, or at least it should go without saying, that if it is too risky to count those experiencing homelessness, it is too dangerous to be experiencing homelessness.

That seems to be what one of Iowa’s newly elected lawmakers was thinking on Tuesday night when he invited a man named Rick into a Des Moines hotel lobby to warm up and discuss his plan to survive the cold.

Zach Wahls answers a question at a forum at the Coralville Public Library on Sept. 10, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Zach Wahls answers a question at a forum at the Coralville Public Library on Sept. 10, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, not only tweeted about the exchange, but devoted his first floor speech to the issue of homelessness.

“What I find especially distressing about the situation – beyond the immediate human and moral cost – is that our veterans, the men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country and for our freedoms, are dramatically over-represented among our homeless population in this state,” Wahls said.

Nationally, housing-first policies and related funding specifically targeting military veterans have significantly decreased the number who are homeless. Throughout the country, homelessness among veterans decreased by 5.4 percent during the past year – a nearly 50 percent reduction since 2010.

But the same isn’t true for veterans in Iowa, who experienced a 14.6 percent increase in homelessness since 2017.

“I want to be very clear that the reason I shared this story … is precisely because this interaction is not how I normally comport myself, despite my own deep concern for those without housing,” Wahls tweeted Wednesday morning. “I want to do better, and I hope our state can do better.”

In speaking from the Senate floor, Wahls specifically noted how another state has addressed its problem with homelessness.

“In fact, the state of Utah – which can sometimes get almost as cold as Iowa – has figured out how to reduce its chronically homeless population by over 90 percent since 2005 and has wound up saving the state money along the way,” Wahls said.

Longtime readers may find this information familiar since I wrote in 2016 about the successes in Utah. The column followed an interview with Lloyd Pendleton, former director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force, who was in Iowa as part of the state’s annual housing conference.

Pendleton, who admits he previously yelled at homeless people to “get a job,” said Iowans need three things in order to move the needle on homelessness: champions, collaboration and compassion. I wrote that we seem to be missing the first C; Iowa needs champions who can work together above and beyond established silos.

Today I’m hopeful, because it appears we may have found one.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Feb. 2, 2019.
Photo credit: Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette