Photo by Vivian Le
Homelessness in Iowa: A Hidden Issue
The photos accompanying the article are in memory of those who died in the last year from homelessness.
February 24, 2016
Tonight, as many as 300 out of 5000 homeless people in Polk County will be sleeping on the streets of Des Moines as the majority of the population nestles in at home, humming peaceful melodies to the winter time. However, no matter how much the community masks the issue with festivities and a new year, those less fortunate will be dreaming of silent nights in the face of a brutal Iowa winter.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, on one single night in January of 2014, 578,424 people were reported to be homeless by local state agencies across the U.S. Approximately 45,200 of those were homeless children unaccompanied by adults. Homelessness has been on the decline over the years, however the complex issue cannot be solved with one simple answer. Not to mention, the local government’s treatment of homeless people continues to encourage the problem.
Des Moines City officials have been evicting people from campsites, in some instances, giving the maximum of a ten days notice for the homeless to pack their belongings. It leaves many people struggling to find another place to stay, possibly exposing them to danger. “How can this be a sensible action?” Joe Stevens, Joppa Co-Founder prompted. “Our city is putting additional hardship on people who are already down and out, which is keeping people homeless.”
In 2014, dozens of people in campsites were forced out of their communities, but retaliated by appealing in the Polk County District Court only for the judge to rule that the City of Des Moines has full legal power to evict homeless from camps. The city continues to post evictions today.
Organizations such as Joppa Outreach actively try to assist people by providing many necessities, but the population of homeless people that were once so easy to find are now scattered around the city and left without a community of those who can relate and care for them. “We are preparing for what we believe will be our deadliest winter since we started doing outreach seven years ago. Campers have no place to go. They do not have tents that are ready for freezing temperatures and snow,” shared Stevens at a homeless memorial. “We implore the city of Des Moines to stop homelessness evictions until solutions are in place.”
Valley High School seniors and Blank Tales co-founders Ethan Eiler and Joe Reck described the evictions as a game of whack-a-mole. Once the city evicts one camp, more pop up in other places, and the city searches for the new camps to close, a never ending cycle.
People can turn to shelters during difficult times, but space is not abundant, causing the shelters to impose a 30-90 day time limit per person. After their time ends, many find themselves back on the streets. “The Central Iowa Shelter is the biggest shelter in terms of their bunk beds in the state of Iowa, but one thing they do is that they open up their lobby when it’s really cold and people can sleep in the lobby. Their lobby is the second largest shelter in the state of Iowa. So it’s terribly underfunded in that area,” expressed Reck.
Blair Avitt, member of the Iowa Council on Homelessness, shared his homeless story at a recent homeless rally in December. “Over five years ago, I was homeless for five months, and I had my first heart attack, and then I was unable to work… then I had another heart attack in the five month period.” Many people like Avitt find themselves homeless due to many uncontrollable variables in life, and it can be particularly tricky when it’s health related. Sometimes it comes down to someone having to decide whether they want to live and be homeless or choose the consequences of a disease.
However, when people end up in the streets, they only become more susceptible to diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, nutritional deprivation, cardiovascular diseases and mental diseases. It can also expose them to higher rates of sexual/physical assault. Even a small cold can turn into something as serious as pneumonia for the homeless population. On top of these conditions, homeless people have higher rates of teen pregnancy, STDs, sexual and physical assault. It is more difficult for the homeless to heal from physical injuries because they often have no way to clean and take care of themselves. In general, they have little access to dental and medical care. As a result of these issues, homeless people are three to four times more likely to die prematurely with an average life expectancy of 41 years.
Being homeless does not come without a cost. According to former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, the average homeless person costs taxpayers roughly around $40,000 a year per chronically homeless person when calculating the cost of homeless shelters, emergency room visits, incarceration and eviction services. Focusing on the Housing First Model, Utah has decreased homelessness rate by 91% since 2005 and overall decreased the amount spent per homeless person. Instead of milling people through the shelter process, they are given an apartment. Currently, Iowa does not have a housing first program. “It’s so puzzling to Ethan and me that we don’t do something cheaper, but also more humane and more ethical,” expressed Reck.
On the night of December 21st, 2015 Des Moines community members congregated at the Capitol steps in memorial for the Iowans who died in the past year while homeless. The event commemorated those lost, but also rallied citizens of the community to take action and eradicate homelessness in the metro area. Many identified that the issue goes deeper than dollars and cents.
In order to improve conditions, the attitude towards homeless people needs to change. “The world draws up its lines and you and I so often unintentionally label others, and we created an us and them mentality,” spoke Pastor Jon Anenson. “They’re moms, they’re dads, they’re brothers, they’re sisters, and they’re neighbors. These people are not faceless statistic, but instead humans who need help,” expressed Joppa co-founder Jackie Stevens.
During the rally, the names of all thirty-one people lost last year to the effects of homelessness were read. Many people were given the opportunity to speak one another and have the necessary conversations to find a solution. Valley High School seniors Joe Reck and Ethan Eiler hope to minimize the social gap between homeless citizens and more fortunate community members by giving homeless people a voice through their publication Blank Tales. The platform serves as a place for people to tell their story and show that the faces of homelessness are no different than the ones seen in everyday life. Eiler pointed out, “Growing up in West Des Moines and growing up in Des Moines, in general, we have a pretty easy access to public education that is consistently ranked really high in the nation and we have opportunities. [We want to offer] a perspective on an issue that someone would not otherwise hear about or have any exposure to, so offering them that perspective and letting them know how they can help.”
“I think it’s important to honor the people who’ve passed away who are often forgotten in our community and also inspire to take actions about the injustices that exists in our community,” said Jorie Hiehidri, an employee at the Central Iowa Shelter and Services.
To understand the severity of the issue, volunteering at shelters, pantries, and kitchens can put a perspective on things. It offers the opportunity to hear someone’s story and the hardships they’ve been through. “One of the best things you can do for a homeless person is just to talk to them because so often in society they are dehumanized as not being worth anything,” Eiler concluded.