Hungry and homeless: Are we steps away from another housing crisis?

Food Bank of Iowa held a massive drive-up food distribution outside of its warehouse on April 30, 2020, a first. (Photo courtesy of Food Bank of Iowa)

A broad-based and evolving effort to feed and house the homeless in Greater Des Moines has drawn significant support as community groups scramble to retool programs to protect clients, staff and volunteers in a pandemic. 

“These leaders know when the moral condition of your community is revealed, you have to act,” said Melissa O’Neil, chief executive director of Central Iowa Shelter & Services. 

But some worry that with rent forgiveness orders expiring at the end of the month, the area could face another housing crisis and an unaddressed need for more than 10,000 affordable housing units. 

And Polk County and Des Moines, both with multimillion-dollar efforts underway, wonder how much the federal government will reimburse them for the extra spending.

“We’ve addressed housing on a short-term basis for those who didn’t have housing and we don’t want them to lose it, but we haven’t really addressed the root of the problem, which is housing is so expensive relative to what workers are making,” said Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. “One hiccup like this puts them at risk of homelessness.”

Eric Burmeister is executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. (Photo courtesy of Polk County Housing Trust Fund)

Burmeister wants to prevent a “homeless crisis” when the eviction moratorium wears off on May 27,  if more of the service workforce ends up unemployed, or federal unemployment benefits end, he said. 

Burmeister said he is appealing to Des Moines and to the Iowa Economic Development Agency and the Iowa Finance Authority to use federal funds to help. Kanan Kapplelman, spokeswoman for the two state agencies, said officials are willing to discuss options. 

Leaders act with ‘moral condition revealed’

Local governments and large corporate donations have made the large response to COVID possible.

Polk County is spending $4 million a month on aid for people who need help with rent, mortgage payments, food, utility bills, transportation or other basic needs, said Matt McCoy, chairman of of the Polk County Board of Supervisors. The county has paid for hotel rooms for homeless people, and has bumped up pay at shelters to time-and-a-half to encourage full staffing, he added.

Much of the aid has been about food and shelter. “If you can’t do that, then what good is government?” asked McCoy, a former state lawmaker. 

Still, paying for all that is a challenge.

County-owned Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino and Iowa Events Center, which both funnel money into county coffers, are not holding events now.

Matt McCoy is a Polk County supervisor. (Photo courtesy of Polk County)

But the county is serving drive-up meals at a handful of senior citizen centers and “they’ve never been busier,” McCoy said.

County reserves of $51 million and possible state and federal aid could help, but McCoy warns the trouble will be long-lasting.

“I don’t think anybody full realizes nationally how bad this is,” McCoy said. “This is going to be horrendous for three years.”

The Des Moines City Council approved $350,000 for emergency food distribution, $685,000 for rent and mortgage payment aid, $750,000 for small business support and $964,000 for emergency shelter, homeless prevention and what shelters call rapid rehousing. 

Burmeister’s organization provided $30,000 for Central Iowa Shelter & Services and other organizations to pay for a client’s rent deposit, or first month’s rent for rapid rehousing. Often, the clients are employed and those up-front costs are the only reason they are homeless, Burmeister added. 

O’Neil said her staff at Central Iowa Shelter & Services moved quickly to reduce the number of people at its downtown Des Moines shelter due to COVID risks. The food pantry was closed to protect volunteers. 

But with the help of the $30,000 donation from Burmeister’s group and $150,000 from Wells Fargo, CISS arranged for three hotel sites (one no longer is used) and a range of apartments. And Polk County turned a building at the Iowa State Fairground into a shelter, run with CISS’ help, for homeless people with COVID.

 “We housed people like crazy,” O’Neil said. 

Workers at Central Iowa Shelter & Services prepare meals to be served at a network of sites around the area. (Photo courtesy of CISS)

The usual 170 to 180 emergency beds at the CISS facility on Mulberry Street fell to 140. In a pinch, the facility can get 263 beds in, but the idea was to encourage physical distancing to protect against the virus. 

“It’s all about how we do creative social distancing amongst a vulnerable population,” O’Neil added. Homeless people are 1.5 times more likely than the general population to contract the virus and 2.5 times more likely to die from it, she added. 

O’Neil said while her staff and volunteers don’t visit people under bridges or in the riverside camps, the homeless can eat at any of the 18 CISS meal sites around town. They also are welcome to shower and eat at the Mulberry Street shelter, even if they aren’t staying there.

CISS is hoping to use some of the money from the city of Des Moines’ effort to pay small restaurants to run six of its 18 meal sites. The idea is to help the restaurants reopen and get residents back on the job. 

O’Neil shares Burmeister’s concern about incomes not supporting rents or mortgage payments. She has found that 35% of the people CISS serves are at the shelter because they don’t make enough to pay their bills.

Feeding people under the bridges

As COVID-19 spread, Curt Carlson and his team at Des Moines-based Joppa made plans to suit up and keep making the rounds among homeless people considered particularly vulnerable to the virus spreading in makeshift camps south of downtown. Joppa typically visits close to 200 people a week living under bridges, in tents and in vehicles. Trained volunteers offer food, water and other supplies. 

That work has continued even as some other social service organizations have closed shelters, stopped a “burrito ministry” and looked for apartments for residents who needed to be separated. The thing that has changed for Joppa is the volunteers now wear masks and gloves, and strictly follow guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Members of the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry-Des Moines make sandwiches at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church. (Photo courtesy of Urban Bicycle Food Ministry)

The Urban Bicycle Food Ministry-Des Moines had to suspend its operations. Its volunteer band exceeded the limit of 10 people in one place and the church where the food is assembled closed along with others in the area under the governor’s original proclamation, Chief Executive Officer Joe Laslo said in an interview.

Instead of assembling and delivering 700 burritos, 600 sandwiches and fruit every Thursday night, the ministry has given $650 a week in donations to Joppa for its outreach to the homeless, Laslo said. 

“We feel very strongly that the donations aren’t ours,” Laslo said. “They are for the homeless.”

The burrito ministry will return later, he added. 

A Food Bank first: Drive-up, bike-up food distribution

Food Bank of Iowa also had drawn large donations from the community. That has led to some first-time missions, like an April 30 event in its east-side Des Moines warehouse parking lot. People could drive, bike or walk up to receive 50-pound bags of food. Staff and volunteers distributed 95,000 pounds of food to 5,300 people over six hours, with Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg and 60 National Guard soldiers helping.  

Instead of buying bags or boxes, Food Bank solicited donated t-shirts, and sewed them into totes. 

Staffer Dylan Lampe said while Food Bank usually provides food through churches and other buildings throughout its 55-county territory, this was an unusual outreach for an usual time.

“We have been able to adjust how we reach out,” said Lampe, senior manager of marketing and communications. “We are pushing out more food. We have to buy more food. Demand is higher. We are transporting more.”

Many groups and governments are boosting services for the homeless and hungry. How to pay for them remains a question in some cases.