Shelter House’s winter programs, Housing First project fight homelessness in Johnson County

Inside Shelter House’s winter emergency shelter. — photo courtesy of Shelter House

Shelter House, an Iowa City nonprofit that serves the needs of the homeless, has kicked off its Out of the Cold fundraising campaign.

“It’s to support all of our winter programs, and that includes the winter emergency shelter,” said Angelica Vannatta, development director for Shelter House. “Our fundraising goal this year is $100,000.”

Shelter House, which was founded in 1983, is the only shelter in Johnson County for people experiencing homelessness. It has 70 beds available on a nightly basis. It also offers drop-in services, including shower and laundry facilities, on a daily basis. During the winter, it opens a second, emergency shelter. In November, it was announced that Johnson County had agreed to let Shelter House use a county-owned building on S Clinton Street as this winter’s emergency shelter.

“We hope to hold an open-house at the winter emergency shelter in December to let the public see some of the work we are doing, and to answer any questions people might have,” Vannatta said.

Anyone interested in contributing to Out of the Cold can do so through Shelter House’s website. Although the fundraiser runs until March, Vannatta said they hope to get most of their contributions before the end of the year.

But Shelter House does more than just provide roof overhead to those in need. Among its many other services, the nonprofit is completing the early stages of a project that will introduce a new approach to combating chronic homelessness in Iowa.

Housing First is an approach that prioritizes providing stable, long-term housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. The housing is intended to provide a secure platform that allows other problems to be dealt with.

The approach has been particularly successful in help people experiencing chronic homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines the chronically homeless as individuals with a disability who have experienced homelessness for at least 12 months, or on at least four separate occasions in the last three years that add up to a total of 12 months.

Utah is probably the most famous example of the impact Housing First can have. Chronic homelessness in the state decreased by 91 percent in the decade following Utah’s adoption of the Housing First approach.

“This will be the demonstration project for the state of Iowa,” Shelter House Executive Director Crissy Canganelli said of the nonprofit’s FUSE-Housing First program.

FUSE stands for Frequent User System Engagement. As part of FUSE, Shelter House and the Johnson County Homeless Coordinating Board conducted a multi-year study of the public services used by four chronically homeless individuals (all of whom volunteered for the study).

“We were able to analyze their service utilization over a four to five-year period. These individuals were going through our emergency rooms, jails, inpatient psychological services and the shelter. And after all these interventions, they ended up back on the streets,” Canganelli explained. “We learned that just those four were costing the community in unreimbursed costs to our community for an average per person/per year cost of just under $140,000.”

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“The most expensive place to house somebody is jail,” Steve Rackis, director of the Iowa City Housing Authority, told Little Village.

The city, along with the county and a number of nonprofits, is working with Shelter House on the FUSE-Housing First program.

“I think the research has shown that the Housing First approach reduces those incidents, which have a high cost to a community,” Rackis said. “Presumably that will lead to a lower cost for the general public.”

Shelter House has received a series of grants to finance the building of apartments for FUSE-Housing First.

“In part, because of the very limited housing stock in Johnson County, and in Iowa City in particular, we determined we would build the units ourselves,” Canganelli said. “We purchased a site in October of 2016. It’s a two story building, with 24 one-bedroom apartments and onsite office for case managers, and a clinic for behavioral and health issues.”

The building will be in the southeast part of Iowa City on Cross Park Avenue. Neumann Monson Architects, HBK Engineering and Modus Engineering and Sustainable Design donated their services for the project, Canganelli said. Current plans call for construction to begin in March 2018.

“We hope the apartments will be ready for occupancy at this time next year,” Canganelli said.

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