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Renovating Lives


The official ribbon cutting was still a few weeks out, but activity swirled around Shelter House Executive Director Chrissi Canganelli on this mid-November morning. We sat at a table in the common area, then made a “walk through” as she enumerated the assets of this new facility on Southgate Avenue.

Staff was busy on the phones. Dollies loaded with boxes were carted in. It was a little hectic, but at least there was room to breathe. The sun’s rays diffused through the peaked skylight above the stairway to the upper level and its dormitory-style wings with bunk beds and separate areas for single men, women and families, and a playroom and study room for children. Of the 70 total beds in the shelter, 14 are in a wing reserved for veterans. Canganelli said she hoped this more structured, healthy living environment, would better enable clients to move forward in their lives.

Somehow the old Shelter House on North Gilbert Street managed to cram in 29 beds for homeless clients but stress, if not claustrophobic mayhem, was a constant. There were no dedicated rooms (unless a closet counts) for counseling or job training, much less a restaurant-style kitchen or classes for clients, all of which are features of the new building whose clean lines and utilitarian construction fit well in the intensive commercial-zoned area a few blocks south of Highway 6 and east of the river.
Overcrowding in that old house often forced the Shelter House to turn away more than a dozen people a night. For the past six years, local churches helped shelter the overflow in their sanctuaries during the winter months, which was a great help, but life for those staying at Shelter House was all too haphazard and provisional.

“You had people who were on top of each other,” said Canganelli. “You had people who were not med compliant [not following medical advice and, specially, correctly using prescribed medication], people who were just trying to maintain their sobriety. You had kids running through. It was a constant challenge, a difficult work and living environment.”

And then there were the people who had rightly secured a bed in the Shelter, who could really use the services, some case management, some counseling, but couldn’t stand the crowding and chaos.

“Say I’m a veteran and I have post-traumatic stress and I’m walking into that,” says Canganelli. “Do I want to continue walking into that? We saw people leaving sooner than we should have, in some instances. People just opting out.”

The need for a new Shelter House in Iowa City was intensified by national and statewide demographic and economic trends. The Iowa Institute for Community Alliance’s July 2010 report on homelessness in Iowa accounted for 23,808 homeless men, women and children who sought shelter in 2009, an increase of 38.7% from 2008. According to the report, 15,351 more people were at risk of becoming homeless in 2010.

According Amy Correia, Johnson County services coordinator, the vast majority of homeless persons in Johnson County can trace their situation to job losses or low-paying jobs, lack of affordable housing, domestic violence, or expensive medical crises.

Correia also says homelessness can be hard to quantify because it includes people who aren’t necessarily living on the street: “You have situations where people are doubled up, living with family or friends or living in unsuitable situations, and that’s harder to count because those aren’t as visible.”

Many are one paycheck away from being homeless and a job loss or a big medical expense can push people into homelessness.

“We certainly know from some of the housing data that there are too many people that are spending more than half of their income on their rent and utilities,” said Correia. “And that puts them in a precarious situation.”

Correia has noticed a trend of more women and families experiencing homelessness over the past 10 years. Canganelli has noticed it as well. When she started working with Shelter House 11 years ago, women and children made up 10 to 15% of their clients. About seven years ago, more women and children began walking through the doors. Over the past five years, nearly 50% of the clients have been women and children.

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The demographic change in the homeless population doesn’t have a single explanation. Unemployment near 10% nationally of course doesn’t help but Canganelli cited other factors that have played a role, such as welfare reform legislation and changes in the labor market, with employers scaling back or eliminating employee benefits.

The demolition of Chicago’s public housing projects is another factor. There’s a nine-year waiting list now for public housing in Chicago; the wait in Iowa City is about two years. It’s easy to see the appeal of moving west, and shelters across Iowa are seeing increasing numbers of families from big cities such as Chicago, where people often leave areas with high concentrations of poverty and crime. “Families hear that you can live here without getting shot at,” said Canganelli. “Sounds like a better life.”

While Iowa City receives an influx of thousands of young people from the affluent Chicagoland suburbs every fall without much anxiety, the arrival of these “Chicago people” has been different, sometimes eliciting less than charitable reactions in some circles (if you doubt this, read the anonymous comments in online news forums) and head-in-the-sand liberal pieties in others. Not content to tap dance around the disadvantages faced by new arrivals, Canganelli discusses them matter-of-factly, saying this population doesn’t necessarily come with the experience and the skills that match perfectly with a place like Iowa City.

“They come with histories, they come with backgrounds, they come with problems sometimes,” said Canganelli. “Not everyone, but sometimes. Sometimes they don’t have the skills necessary to actualize all the changes that they desire for themselves and their children and the improvements that they desire. But that does not diminish their hopes and the validity of their hopes and their dreams for their families and for their kids. It’s no different from my wanting something better for my kids.”

Canganelli is alarmed by the level of discourse on this issue and worries that the demonization of these new arrivals has led some to assert the right to “limit the mobility of people who are poor.”

“I understand where people’s hopes and fears come from… Well, sometimes I don’t,” Canganelli continued. “So much is just driven by fear and the challenge is now that we’re here, we have to demonstrate that we can take care of this facility and we can truly take advantage of the resources that we’ve made available to help people move forward in their lives.”

One of those resources is the Supportive Training and Access to Resources (or STAR) program, which can help in a number of ways as a gap-filler until employment is secured. So long as clients are working toward goals and objectives set out with their case managers, STAR can help with things like the expense of clothes for a job interview, vouchers for transportation to work or child care.

Canganelli takes issue with criticism that assistance enables irresponsible behavior. There are firm rules that go with staying at Shelter House and consequences for breaking them. Clients must stay sober, and anyone staying for more than a transient visit must line up specific goals to address with a case manager. And anyone who is not severely disabled is expected to be working or working hard to find and maintain employment. (Some clients are already employed but just don’t make enough to make ends meet; about a third of homeless families are the “working poor.”)

Veterans are allowed to stay up to two years, but for everyone else the limit is 90 days. People who are just passing through are limited to a 30-day stay. The longer, 90-day stay opens up for people who have more barriers or “systemic issues,” as Canganelli puts it. But those staying for 90-days must earn the right to do so in two-week increments.

“We don’t look at you coming in and say, ‘You’ve got 90 days to hang out,’” said Canganelli. “‘We’ll check in with you on day 79 and see how things went.’ It does not work that way at all.”

Because they don’t have living expenses while staying at Shelter House, clients are also expected to demonstrate that they are saving 75% of their income towards establishing themselves in an apartment. “If you go one Friday night and blow your paycheck,” said Canganelli, “you’re gone.”

But for all the serious consequences facing clients that don’t follow Shelter House rules, there is compassion and common sense in how the rules are applied. If someone has a severe mental illness or very low cognitive functioning and is in the middle of a breakdown, worrying about an infraction of a particular rule is less important than getting that person help.

“If that same person has schizophrenia and is not on their medication,” said Cagnagelli, “we’re not going to look at that person and say, ‘In two weeks, we want you to find a job.’ No, in two weeks we want to know that you’re here and we can find you and we’re getting you back on your meds. How do we start connecting the dots? We’re trying to take into account the barriers that people are dealing with and still be realistic and more productive than saying ‘Thou Shalt Not.’ Where does that get anybody?”

By the logic of some incentive structures from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), however, Shelter House may lose out on funding for such an approach. The $1.5 billion Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP)–signed into law by President Obama in February 2009 and endorsed by HUD–measures success as a shorter stay in a shelter (or, better yet, none at all). While avoiding homelessness in the first place is optimal, a model that pressures organizations to minimize shelter stays concerns Canganelli, who prefers longer stays if needed so that clients with fundamental challenges in their lives can address them methodically.

“Throwing a whole lot of money at getting people into housing and then walking away and then keeping them in that housing but not addressing any of the systemic issues that caused them to be homeless doesn’t work,” Canganelli said. “After you pull that back out, all things fall apart even faster than they would have otherwise.”

“We know that we have something here that works,” Canganelli said. “And it’s taken a long time to get to here. You turn around and meet with somebody at HUD who says, ‘In the last seven years the world’s changed, you need to understand that.’ But I turn back and say, ‘But the people’s needs haven’t. Just because you don’t find the old way of doing things sexy or interesting anymore, doesn’t mean that they weren’t relevant.’ And again, I ask, ‘Have you addressed the core, root reasons that have brought us to this place?’ And I’d say rapid re-housing does not.”

Looking forward, Canganelli doesn’t like depending on HUD funding and is looking for other “revenue streams” to sustain and grow operations. The gleaming chrome of the new Shelter House’s commercial kitchen and the Shelter’s nascent culinary training program may be able to help. As clients are trained in food preparation, she hopes they will able to sell their finished products and skills to area businesses.

Ultimately Canganelli hopes that people see homelessness as a public health issue and that Shelter House is earnest in providing resources and services for the good of all. “The work that we do is improving not just the lives of the individuals that we’re working with,” Canganelli said, “but the health, safety and well-being of the community at large.”


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