Fillmore Center in Cedar Rapids will be used as a cooling center for people experiencing homelessness

Linn County’s Fillmore Center, 520 11th St NW. April 20, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

With temperatures rising and many buildings closed to the public due to COVID-19, people experiencing homelessness or individuals who don’t have access to air conditioning have limited options for where they can go to cool off.

On Wednesday, the Linn County Board of Supervisors approved using the county-owned Fillmore Center, 520 11th St NW, as a place to access water and air conditioning starting July 1.

The days and hours of operation of the water and cooling center have not been announced yet, but the anticipated hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The center will be staffed by Willis Dady Homeless Services, which also provided services when the building was being used as an emergency overflow shelter from last November to the end of June.

The overflow shelter was expected to close at the end of March, but due to COVID-19, the shelter stayed open after the Board of Supervisors continued to extend the lease due to community need. Willis Dady increased the shelter’s hours in mid-March to 24/7 due to concerns of the pandemic.

The three supervisors discussed the Fillmore Center as during the board’s Monday and Wednesday meetings.

During Monday’s meeting, Supervisor Ben Rogers said the City of Cedar Rapids had approached the board about using the Fillmore Center as a water distribution and cooling center since many city buildings remain closed and water fountains are not going to be turned on in public parks downtown.

The city announced this week that it is extending its building closures to the public until July 20. Among those buildings is the Cedar Rapids Public Library, where many people would go during the day in a typical summer.

The library being closed “puts pressure on a system that is already typically full,” Rogers said, adding that Willis Dady and Waypoint Services have seen increased need and do not have space for everyone at their shelters. Willis Dady’s Shelter Manager Denine Rushing said on Wednesday that there are at least 35 individuals without shelter who would benefit from a place to get water and escape the heat.

“We do have a population of people for which they won’t have access to water and shelter that they would be accustomed to,” Rogers said. “So, water distribution is pretty simple — we can get water to people. But really, it’s the ability to find shelter and rest from the heat. I think that this weekend really drove home that point to me with weather being in the 90 degrees and having almost corresponding levels of humidity.”

Rogers said the Fillmore Center isn’t an ideal location — something more central to downtown would be better — but there aren’t a lot of options. There is a possibility of finding a better location later, he added.

“It’s not optimal, but if there were other places for people to go, we would not be having this conversation,” Rogers said. “The fact is, this is one of the few remaining [locations] that we have been able to identify that have the space, that have the capability, that have the willingness to even engage in this.”

Supervisor Brent Oleson raised concerns about the Fillmore Center turning into a year-round shelter or into a day center, which wasn’t something the board approved or budgeted for.

Rogers said the access to water and air conditioning is less than what a day center would be. The day center would have had computers, internet access, educational opportunities and other resources.

“I know that when we looked at the day center, which was not in the deck of cards given the millions of budget dollars that were requested of us, but we were limited in what we could do,” Rogers said. “I think it is showing that there is a greater homeless population emerging in our community, and that the local nonprofits are struggling to keep up with it because their infrastructure is such that they’re full.”

It’s anticipated the water and cooling center will be open throughout July and August.

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