Homelessness was increasing in Iowa. Then COVID-19 and the derecho hit.

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

A total of 2,647 Iowans were homeless on a single night in January 2020, a 14.3 percent increase from January 2019.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Iowa was increasing even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Then came the August 2020 derecho that caused nearly $4 billion in damage, with at least $83 million of that being housing-related.

Of the individuals experiencing homelessness in Iowa, about 87 percent — or 2,314 — were sheltered. The remaining 333 individuals were unsheltered.

These findings are part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual point-in-time count of homelessness in the country. The one-night counts are conducted nationwide during the last 10 days of January each year. The report, along with a breakdown for each state, was published last month.

HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge called the report’s findings “startling” but didn’t stop there.

“What makes these findings even more devastating is that they are based on data from before COVID-19, and we know the pandemic has only made the homelessness crisis worse,” Fudge said.

Nationally, about 580,000 people were experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2020. Homelessness increased by about 2 percent nationwide, making for the fourth consecutive year the country experienced an increase, according to the report.

Homelessness increased in 30 states and decreased in 19 states. Idaho was the only state to report no change.

Iowa was among the four states that experienced the largest percentage increase between 2019 and 2020, according to the report.

As numbers increase nationally and statewide, the increase is also being felt locally in Linn County. The county conducts its own point in time counts twice a year, typically once in January and a second time in July.

There was a 24 percent increase of individuals experiencing homelessness in Linn County, according to data from February 2019 to January 2020.

On Jan. 29, 2020, 300 individuals were experiencing homelessness. A total of 163 people were served by emergency shelters, 126 people were served by transitional housing programs and 11 people were found living on the street.

“It feels like each year the numbers are growing, the need becomes greater, the circumstances more dire,” Supervisor Ben Rogers told Little Village. “The secondary effects of being homeless or at risk of homelessness, such as mental illness and substance abuse, those problems don’t solve themselves, and it’s hard to be well and sober if you don’t have safety and stability and a home.”

Rogers, who is from Cedar Rapids and has lived there for most of his life, said he has seen more signs of chronic homelessness over the years. He added that growing up in Cedar Rapids, homelessness seemed like something that happened elsewhere.

The supervisor has been involved and passionate about issues related to mental health and homelessness during his time on the board. To him, homelessness and housing are two issues that he “can’t unsee.”

As he started to get more involved with working on addressing homelessness, Rogers said he “didn’t have to dig very hard to see it — it was out in the open, and it could not be ignored anymore.”

“As a community, I think we have to have a larger conversation on what homelessness is and how to better serve those who find themselves either at risk for homelessness or the chronically homeless,” Rogers said.

Linn County has an overflow shelter located at the county-owned Fillmore Center, 520 11th St NW. The shelter is staffed by employees from Willis Dady Homeless Services and is a no-barrier homeless shelter, which means individuals can be intoxicated and don’t have to list the reason why they’re homeless.

The shelter is intended to be used during the winter months until the start of spring, but many still need the resources beyond winter, especially amid the pandemic and after the derecho, Rogers said. The Board of Supervisors extended the shelter’s lease last year because of the increasing need, and the building was also used as a cooling center last summer.

“We’ve had some really bone-chilling winters. We’ve also had some oppressively hot summer days in which we use this as a cooling center for the homeless,” Rogers said. “COVID has exposed a real need to be able to provide this level of service, and then the lack of affordable housing and the destruction of affordable housing [during the derecho] has meant that some people who were at risk already for homelessness have found themselves needing to use the shelter almost year-round.”

An advantage of the Fillmore Center’s location is that it’s right next to the county’s Mental Health Access Center, which opened in early March.

A ribbon cutting ceremony was held on Friday, March 5, to celebrate the completion of the Linn County Mental Health Access Center. — video still

“We think it’ll kind of create a circular flow of some people who are in the homeless center may also access the Mental Health Access Center for a variety of issues,” Rogers said. “Those who are discharged from the access center may not have any place to be discharged to so they may find themselves in the homeless center. … There is that partnership and that safety net, and we’re just looking to try and tighten that net to ensure that fewer people fall through it.”

But as the need continues to grow, it’s becoming clear that a more space is necessary. Plans for a larger location are in the early stages, according to Rogers, with the city and county working to identify some possible spaces and funding.

“We’ve really outgrown the Fillmore,” Rogers said. “It’s been wonderful for what it’s been used for, but it’s kind of met its needs, and we’ve kind of taken it as far as we can. With the population increasing, the needs increasing, we have to, I think, venture out to find another location.”

Since the majority of the people who are experiencing homelessness in Linn County are in Cedar Rapids, finding a location close to downtown that’s “easy access” would be ideal. But finding a new location is a “delicate balance” given the various things to consider, including making sure transportation isn’t a burden and having enough space to serve more individuals while also practicing social distancing, Rogers said.

The goal is to find a building that will not only meet the needs of people currently experiencing homelessness but also future needs. They’re considering adding a day center — a location where individuals could spend time during the day and also have access to a computer, mailbox, laundry facilities, showers and other basic resources.

“I really want to expand it into something where homeless people have places to go throughout the day that’s safe, where it’s productive for them, where they don’t feel like they have to just occupy their time being out in the community, that they have a safe place to go where they can get services or get clean, get a meal, and connect with other people,” Rogers said.

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

While the official numbers reflecting the impact of the pandemic on homelessness won’t be published for another year, individuals at various nonprofits have already started to note the effects.

J’Nae Peterman, who is the director of housing and homeless services at Waypoint Services, said calls to the organization were up 40 percent from December 2019 to December 2020, which is a “huge increase.” Peterman said the number usually stays stagnant or there is a 1 to 2 percent spike from year to year.

Denine Rushing noted that she’s seen more people coming to Willis Dady who might not have used the organization’s services in previous years. Rushing is the shelter services director at the nonprofit.

“We’ve seen a lot of people that have never tapped into these services before that are now all of a sudden in need because their house has been damaged to the point where they’re no longer able to live in it or they may have lived in an apartment complex where they had to exit their apartment for several weeks for repairs to be made, so we’ve just seen our populations shift a little bit,” Rushing said.

Having more affordable housing was already a need prior to 2020, but the pandemic and derecho exacerbated that need. Rushing, Peterman and Rogers all agreed that there is a shortage of affordable housing, especially after the derecho destroyed many of these units.

“This is a conversation we’ve had before, but now it’s just more evident that it’s something that’s really needed within our community,” Rushing said. “We do have affordable housing here in Linn County, but unfortunately, we just don’t have enough to go around.”

Rogers said there is a misconception that there’s a lot of housing, with condos and apartments being built and houses available for rent. But these housing options aren’t affordable for those with lower incomes.

“There’s sort of a false sense of a safety net or a false illusion that there exists a lot of ample housing, and I think if people began to understand some of the stories, or the reasoning, that people become homeless, I think that compassion would go a long way,” Rogers said.

In addition to adding affordable housing, the city and county need to get creative with housing options since the need is so high, Peterman said. Potential solutions she brought up include permanent supportive housing and housing units that nonprofits own, which would put less burden on landlords and potentially reduce the number of evictions.

“When you’re thinking of the high-need population that we’re serving year after year, it is typically because we’re expecting landlords to be social workers, and they’re not,” Peterman said. “They’re not expected to know how to deal with mental health issues and substance abuse issues, and all the complexities that come along with homelessness and being homeless for years. [Nonprofits are] already doing that work, already have that rapport. They’re really the best ones to create stable housing options and end homelessness for these individuals.”

Aftermath of the Aug. 10 derecho in Cedar Rapids. — courtesy of Steve Shriver

The county has a role to play when it comes to providing and enhancing these services, Rogers said. He hopes that the crises of 2020 lead to greater awareness of the issues facing their housing-insecure neighbors.

“I would really hope that after COVID and after people experienced the derecho — where they didn’t have power for a number of days and they couldn’t charge their electronics and food in the refrigerator may have gone bad and it was uncomfortable and it wasn’t the way that they’re used to living and it was challenging — that people kind of remember that,” Rogers said. “That’s someone’s everyday story, and there’s a greater level of understanding and compassion towards people who find themselves in situations that we wouldn’t wish on anyone else. Surviving this way is very traumatic. No one wants to live this way, but many people find themselves unable to get out of it, or it takes time.”

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