A Crisis within a Crisis

A look at homelessness in Iowa

By Nik Heftman

Jonathan was a seven-year-old kid attending elementary school on the west side of town. Every morning, a volunteer from the school district picked Johnny up from an old motel on the east side of town, where he had been living with his mother and little sister for a couple of months since they had been evicted. They had lost everything in the eviction, which ultimately put them on the street for days. 

In his backpack, Johnny carried with him a notebook, a few pencils, a coloring book, clothes, a cooking pot, a bar of soap and anything else Johnny could salvage from the motel in which he and his family stayed; this wasn’t the first time he and his family had been thrown out of their “home.” He took it upon himself to make sure that if his family were to be kicked out of that motel, they would have the things that they needed. 

Stories like Jonathan’s have become commonplace in what is becoming an ongoing housing struggle faced by several counties in the state of Iowa. “There’s a huge housing crisis here in Ames,” says Sipele Pablo, the homeless liaison for the Ames community school district. “There’s just not enough to go around.” 

According to Pablo, 1 in 45 children in the U.S. are homeless at some point, and the average homeless individual is nine-years-old. Within the Ames community school district, 33 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning that the same percentage is living at or below the poverty line. 

If families identify as homeless while registering their child for school, Pablo contacts those families to assure them of their child’s right to an education. Pablo also works to make sure that the child’s basic needs are met in an effort to break down the barriers to academic success. Between 150 and 200 families within the school district identify as homeless each year. “That doesn’t include [students] who may have dropped out, or aren’t on our radar,” Pablo says.

“[The homeless] can’t even go outside because it’s literally illegal to be homeless”

He also does extensive community outreach work featuring the Connect Program, which connects 8th graders with Iowa State students. The goal of the program is to introduce students to college life through presentations, special events and college visit days. 

Pablo also refers families to several other services for families with need from Boone to Des Moines; one of the services includes the Emergency Residence Project (ERP) in Ames. ERP was established in 1985 and it serves low-income individuals with housing needs. The project manages a short-term homeless shelter for men and families, long-term transitional housing that helps families get back on their feet, and a homeless prevention program that aids those in need of rental assistance or help paying their utilities. 

“If we can keep them in their home, [the families] are better off,” says Vic Moss, director of ERP. Since its establishment, ERP has expanded from housing eight people at a time to housing fifty people a night. 

ERP also provides motel rooms for families in need of long-term housing, but the expansion has proven to be far from adequate. “We get calls every single day [from individuals] that we can’t house,” Moss says. “We are turning away more families now than when we were tiny. The problem grew faster than the solution.” Annually, about 2,000 families seek aid from ERP, 1,400 of which utilize the homeless prevention program. “It’s just constant,” Moss adds. “Every single day we’ll deal with families who are in serious trouble.” 

According to departmentofnumbers.com, the average amount one would pay for rent in the U.S. sat at $992 monthly in 2014. In the state of Iowa, the average was $714 , while Ames had an average of $841 dollars. Due to a drastic increase of demand for housing in Ames, rental rates have increased dramatically. According to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, 10 percent of the population in every county of Iowa sits below the poverty line. Families are often subject to paying more than half of their income on rent and utilities alone. “We can’t create affordable housing,” Moss says. “We can’t create jobs with living wages, and that’s what we need.”

Des Moines also faces a housing crisis of its own. In the state’s capital city, hundreds of homeless of varying ages are left with no place to go due to a lack of affordable housing and lack of shelter space. “Tent Cities” have become common along rivers and vacant city grounds. For the last couple of years, Des Moines city officials have been cracking down on these tent cities by evicting the homeless from the city grounds. “We don’t have any way to move them from shelter into housing,” says Elizabeth Patten, program coordinator at the opportunity center of the Iowa Homeless Youth Center. “[The homeless] can’t even go outside because it’s literally illegal to be homeless.” 

“I think housing should be a human right”

Patten’s program serves homeless youth between ages 16 and 21 by providing short-term housing and other services to ensure that the basic needs of the youth are met. The program will aid one hundred youth in a six-month period. “I think housing should be a human right,” says Patten. “Homelessness is such an injustice.” Though poverty is a complex issue, housing reform would certainly be a start. All three parties believed that it was up to the general public to take notice of the issue and bring it to the attention of those in power.