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Cooler temperatures and cold attitudes towards Des Moines’ houseless spur supply drive — ‘We keep us safe’


Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

As temperatures drop, the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement Collective, Supply Hive and Des Moines Mutual Aid have joined forces to make sure unhoused people have access to warm clothing and supplies.

In a Twitter post on Oct. 17, DSM BLM explained the urgency behind the donation drive.

“ICYMI [In case you missed it]: last week @desmoinesgov [the City of Des Moines] destroyed the tents and belongings of many of our neighbors experiencing houselessness downtown. We are working to collect supplies for them.”

On Oct. 10, crews from the Public Works Department cleared an encampment of at least four people along Mulberry Street near Falcon Drive after receiving a complaint. The city will usually give campers 10 days’ notice before they begin sweeping the area, the campers time to pack up or appeal the order. But SuAnn Donovan, the city’s deputy director of neighborhood services, told the Des Moines Register the “volume and degree of the food product and hazardous material” onsite “required an immediate cleanup,” so officials started right away. The campers were offered and received services from the Central Iowa Shelter and Services (CISS), Donovan said, which also stores belongings gathered by the city crews, such as tents, for 10 days.

Increased enforcement on homeless encampments followed a special meeting of the Des Moines City Council in which downtown business leaders and others voiced their concerns about the presence of unhoused people.

Amy Tursi, the co-owner of Exile Brewing Company, said, “I call the police. I have people camping on my property and they get drunk at about 5 o’clock and my employees are in the parking lot. They feel threatened. I call the police and the police tell me that there’s nothing they can do and I need to talk to our city officials.”

During a conversation with a police officer, he mentioned a drunk tank would be the best solution, Tursi said, since CISS can’t take in individuals who are under the influence. “When people are passed out, on drugs, strung out, there needs to be some place to take them besides the hospital. That was his suggestion to me,” Tursi recalled.

“We are undermining all the good that the homeless shelter is doing by allowing these people to come and get breakfast and dinner, a hot meal, and you can see the picture of them all, all lined up, drugged out, passed out ….”

Councilmember Indira Sheumaker agreed there have been increasing complaints of loitering, panhandling and camping downtown, but said it has less to do with finding a place to put unhoused people than addressing root causes.

“The problem is that people don’t have housing, people don’t have food, people don’t have resources, people don’t have these things that they need to be successful and to be safe,” she said.

“I understand that that causes problems with businesses and that causes things to not appear as good as we would like them to, and I can tell you why. They don’t happen in the suburbs because people get picked up and dropped off here in Des Moines.”

Like Tursi, other business owners and some Des Moines residents have made comments suggesting the problem with homelessness is drug addiction.

Screenshot of Amanda Thompson’s Homeless Drug use in downtown Des Moines, IA petition, courtesy of Change.org

Not long after the September city council meeting, an online petition was created to assert that the solution to homelessness is rehabilitation to prevent dangerous and unsafe conditions or situations. The petition closed with 55 supporters.

The petition was followed by Des Moines city crews taking action on Oct. 10 to clear the encampment near CISS. Responses from business leaders who have complained about the presence of such encampments were largely positive.

“Obviously it’s a superficial thing, it’s mostly for optics, but it’s something that needs to happen,” R.J. Tursi of Exile Brewing said of the sweep. “There’s a lot more that needs to be done.”

Des Moines Mutual Aid condemned the action in a statement.

The city is wildly inconsistent about how they carry out these forced removals, sometimes coming in without warning like on Monday, sometimes using a notification system that gives their actions the veneer of legality. Occasionally they use a mix of both: last April, the city notified campers DMMA sees regularly on the Des Moines River levee that they would be removed in a month. They waited 5 months to act on this threat; long enough that most campers there assumed they weren’t coming and were surprised when the cops and bulldozers showed up. The city uses a variety of justifications for destroying people’s homes. They often feign concern for campers’ or the public’s health or claim the need to keep levees clear. When these fail, the go-to excuse is to claim that they are responding to complaints.

“Why [Amy] Tursi, who opened her business less than 100 meters from the largest houseless shelter in the state of Iowa, felt entitled to complain about houseless people existing close to her business, was not a part of her statement to the City Council,” the statement goes on, noting the alcohol industry, of which Exile Brewing is a part, profits from alcohol substance abuse disorder.

In a further effort to address concerns, the City of Des Moines has created a new homelessness policy administrator position, which will serve as a bridge between assistance organizations and the government. The application deadline for the job is Nov. 10.

The Supply Hive donation box at the Art Terrarium — Courtney Guein/Little Village

The groups leading the supply drive are focused on advocating for the city’s most marginalized communities, starting with making sure anyone left outside this fall and winter has the means to stay warm.

DSM BLM is an extension of the global movement started in 2013 by advocates exasperated to see white supremacy upheld in the case of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, among other victims of racialized violence.

The Supply Hive started after multiple killings of Black people by police in 2020, similar to BLM. The bee inspired organization focuses on bringing people together to support those who fight for justice on the front lines with food, water, and any needed supplies. Since their start, the two founders Aaliyah Quinn and Zakariyah Hill decided to continue being a forager.

Des Moines Mutual Aid is a police and prison abolitionist organization founded in 2019 to aid the area’s houseless. Their current projects include a rent relief fund, bail fund, court support and weekly free grocery redistribution alongside the Panther Pantry.

Items needed for the winter supply drive include tents, tarps, sleeping bags, blankets, socks, gloves, hats, coats, batteries, duct tape, hand warmers, head lamps, propane tanks, propane heaters, food and black plastic sheeting.

Collected items will be given away to houseless residents throughout Des Moines.

There are two drop-off locations for donations, The Art Terrarium located at 106 11th Street and Creative Images Tattoo located at 2649 Beaver Ave.

Financial donations can be made out to DSM Mutual Aid, Venmo (@DesMoines_MutualAid), GoFundMe which has raised close to $3,000 so far, or PayPal.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article conflated Des Moines Mutual Aid and Iowa Mutual Aid Network. Des Moines Mutual Aid is an independent organization. Little Village regrets this error.


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