Facing homelessness: What the issue looks like in southeast Iowa

Union photo by Gretchen Teske

A Community Christian Outreach Center was established in Washington. In just several, director Darren Brown, explained that the center’s capacity to help with emergency housing has almost been reached.
Union photo by Gretchen Teske A Community Christian Outreach Center was established in Washington. In just several, director Darren Brown, explained that the center’s capacity to help with emergency housing has almost been reached.

Out of sight, out of mind — that’s the way Ken Brown, the executive director of the Fellowship Cup, describes how most southeast Iowa residents approach the issue of homelessness in the region.

Winter and colder weather rages on while people struggling with homelessness continue to find shelter away from the elements.

“It’s a daily issue to much of the surprise of the people here … but I don’t think people think about it unless they see someone on a corner holding a sign,” Brown noted.

The Fellowship Cup, a nonprofit whose goal is to provide for the underserved in Henry County, provides emergency housing assistance. In 2019, before the month of December, the Fellowship Cup recorded 145 instances in which it served people in need, which included either paying for a one-night stay at a local motel or providing funds to help get an individual or a family to a homeless shelter in a neighboring county. The executive director named Ft. Madison, Washington, Iowa City and Burlington as common places the nonprofit calls to inquire about open beds.

“What we normally do is we pay for one night and one night only if there’s space available at the motel and we have to stick to it,” Brown explained, noting that so many people in the area are in need of housing assistance, the nonprofit can only provide emergency assistance for one night.

“There’re no homeless shelters in Henry County,” he added.

Paula Morgan, the low income Home Energy Assistance Program and housing coordinator at Community Action’s central office in Burlington, said she wishes there was a homeless shelter in every county to help address the issue. The agency, which has offices across the state, helps combat poverty through assisting families and individuals “in obtaining decent and affordable housing, adequate nutrition, employment, affordable and quality child care, education and training.”

“People don’t want to admit that there are homeless people in their towns, but I think it would benefit everyone if there were shelters in every county. There might be homeless people in [southeast Iowa] and we may find a place for you in a shelter in Northern Iowa, but how are you going to get there? If there were more local ones, people would be served easier,” Morgan said.

“99 percent of the time, the existing shelters are constantly full. When somebody graduates out of it, there’s always somebody else waiting to go in,” she added.

But even with existing shelters, Brown notes that perhaps the biggest hurdle those struggling with homelessness face is finding shelters that accept children.

“What homelessness looks like in southeast Iowa is families. Whether it’s a single parent with kids or a mom and dad with kids, it’s more families that I see. The stereotype is older people or individuals, but really I have families coming to me on a daily and weekly basis,” Brown remarked.

Although homelessness continues to be a prominent issue, the image of homelessness is very different from the one most people are used to, especially in the winter time.

Morgan noted that each year, the state conducts a Point In Time Count, during which various agencies work together to get a count of how many homeless individuals are living on the streets of cities and towns throughout Iowa. It happens on the last Wednesday in January, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

“Thankfully, we don’t have many in southeast Iowa that sleep outside at night. Last year, we found two people in all of southeast Iowa,” she said.

“There may be more. But if so, they’re keeping pretty well hidden,” she acknowledged.

Director of Christian Community Outreach Center, Darren Brown, echoed Morgan’s comment that homelessness is not usually people sleeping in tents on streets. Usually, homelessness in Iowa often takes the form of couch surfing, living out of cars or utilizing public spaces that are open for extended hours. Brown also added that there are individuals who “camp out all winter long.” The director, who helped coordinate the opening of the outreach center that offers emergency housing in Washington last October, explained that staying out is not generally the norm.

“Usually those people have life-controlling issues. They’re typically hiding, if they’re camping out. They’ve got a place somewhere burrowed in the trees, typically it’s a forest wooded area, where there’s enough undergrowth and brush that they can’t be found easily. As long as they have blankets and clothing, they’re generally going to be all right, unless it gets really, really cold,” he said.

“We knew roughly that we had six to ten homeless people when we started working on the project,” Brown added.

In just the several months since the center has opened, Brown is already nearly at full capacity, serving 25 people, 85 percent of whom come from within the community. Since the shelter opened right at the end of fall, Brown noted that there was an uptick in people seeking shelter as temperatures dropped.

“Basically we pulled the cover off it. Nobody knows about it. They keep it hidden because the community doesn’t want it and they don’t see it … so what happens is that the community starts talking about homelessness and making the rest of the community aware that it’s here,” Brown said.

“All it takes here is if you go uptown two or three days in a row and sit somewhere for two or three hours, and you start watching, you start seeing the same people walking the square,” he continued, noting that homelessness is visible to those who know what to look for.

“It is a community issue, but most people don’t think it’s a community issue,” Brown said.