The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

December 28, 2012

Help for the homeless: A snapshot of Clinton residents’ needs

By Katie Dahlstrom
Herald Staff Writer

CLINTON — Nearly 2,000 people are at risk of being homeless in Clinton County — a statistic that doesn’t surprise many of the people fighting to decrease that number everyday.  

“The homeless are not just people living on the streets or in shelters,” Pastor Ray Gimenez, executive director of the Victory Center said. “They’re people doubling up, staying with friends or family. They’re invisible.”

While a number of organizations including the Victory Center, Information, Referral and Assistance Services, the YWCA and others work to prevent homelessness and help those already in its grip, the number of those needing help continues to grow as funding faces sharp cuts. The need for help from the community is greater than ever before, leaders said.     

According to the Iowa Council on Homelessness, an agency of the Iowa Finance Authority, there were 455 homeless in Clinton County last year. That mix includes households and individuals.  

However, the state data shows another 1,965 are at risk of being homeless in the county.  

“Most of the people we see are a paycheck away from homelessness,” Regan Michaelsen, director of Information and Referral, said.  

Her organization works to prevent homelessness in the area by providing rent and utility assistance to those struggling to pay their bills.

Each year $10,000 is budgeted for rent assistance and another $10,000 goes toward utility assistance. On average Information and Referral helps 400 people in a month, about half need help with rent.  

“If you have any interruption in everyday life that can be devastating,” Michaelsen said. “If your car breaks down on the way to work.  Now you’ve missed work and have to pay to get the car fixed. A simple car repair, anything like that could be huge.”

Information and Referral also offers a transitional housing program called JERICHO that has the capacity to house six families.  Some of these families come from other programs while some are in recovery or struggling, Michaelsen said.

By partnering with agencies such as the Associate Benevolent Society and the Salvation Army, community groups can bring the homeless or quasi-homeless items such as food and personal items that can be the difference between paying rent or being evicted.   

Despite its best prevention efforts, the number of homeless or those teetering on the edge continues to grow.  

“It’s becoming harder and harder to fix the need,” Michaelsen said.

According to the state report, homelessness has a long-term effect on those in Clinton County. Of those surveyed in 2011, 81 of the 175 individuals who answered said they were chronically homeless.

For 48 it was the first time being homeless.

For 40 they had been homeless two or three times before and six people had been homeless four or more times.

Gimenez, who founded the Victory Center 25 years ago, said while more than 40 percent of the people who come to his shelter take the programs and leave for productive lives, he’s also seen some of the same people make their way back to the shelter several times.  

“I think a shelter is the last place people expect to find themselves,” said Ronelle Clark, Director of the Clinton YWCA’s Crisis Services Director. “Ninety-nine percent of people have tried other options.”

However, as shown by the state’s figures and numbers from local emergency shelters such as the YWCA’s, many in the community do seek this kind of help.

Last year the YWCA’s emergency shelter housed 171 women and children who were fleeing because of a sexual assault, stalking or domestic violence.  Another 65 chose to use the agency’s transitional housing.  Further, 165 women and children were turned away from emergency shelter due to lack of space while a waiting list of women and children kept their fingers crossed for a spot in transitional housing.

“There are a lot of challenges for people looking for help,” Clark said.

While Clark works at the YWCA, she also serves as the chairperson of the Clinton and Jackson County Coalition for the Homeless. In that role she sees not just women and children suffering, but all types of people with a myriad of struggles preventing them from finding permanent housing.  

Many of the programs in the community focus on specific sections of the population, while limited resources are available to those who do not suffer with domestic violence, substance abuse or chronic mental illness.  

“There’s a gap in the community,” Clark said.   

According to the state report, a majority of those served in Clinton County were homeless due to economics and reasons classified as “other” or reasons not because of crime, moving, family or medical reasons.

Although not all dealing with homelessness also deal with substance abuse, Gimenez and his wife, Mary Anne, said a number of the people who occupy the 90 beds available through the Victory Center’s shelter and YMCA space have struggled with drugs or alcohol.  

County Attorney Mike Wolf also said substance abuse and mental issues are recurring themes of the several homeless who come through the court system every week.

Although these people sober up while in jail, a more sustainable solution would be to institute preventative measures.

”We’re a place of last resort,” Wolf said. “We’re not a permanent fix. Treatment is a permanent fix.”

However, looming cuts to mental health and victim’s assistance funding from the state could threaten the court system’s ability to help the homeless with mental or domestic problems. The YWCA is anticipating a $240,000 shortfall while the cuts to mental health funding could total half a million dollars.  

“I’m concerned it will add to the homeless problem in the community,” Wolf said.

Organizations that prevent and treat homelessness in the area rely on support from community members. The Victory Center stopped taking money from the state 11 years ago and has since not had major troubles funding its $500,000 annual budget with around $100,000 coming in the form of in-kind donation of goods and services. However, this year the organization will need $700,000 in its budget.  

Future budget cuts paired with rising need will force all organizations to rely even more heavily on donations and contributions.

Leaders of the Victory Center, YWCA, Information and Referral, Associate Benevolent Society and Salvation Army echoed each other’s sentiments that financial support is the most effective way to help. Other ways to help include donating sleeping bags, warm blankets, toiletries and food to the Associate Benevolent Society and Salvation Army. The Victory Center also appreciates people hosting fundraisers, or making and serving a meal to the people who visit three times a day for food.  

Beyond donations, Clark urged residents to advocate for services by writing local legislators and continuing to make their voices heard.  

“The community needs to surround this with support,” Clark said.