‘We’re not out of the woods’: Shelter House’s winter shelter is open, for now

Beds at Shelter House, 429 Southgate Ave, Iowa City — Shelter House via Facebook

Shelter House’s winter emergency shelter has opened after a month of delays caused by staffing issues and COVID-19 infections.

The winter shelter, located at on 340 Southgate Ave, opened Jan. 4. Seventy-nine people took shelter that night, with 72 staying at the main emergency shelter at 429 Southgate Ave, and seven staying at the winter shelter, according to Christine Ralston, director of development for Shelter House.

The winter shelter is open from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., Monday through Saturday. The shelter closes at 8 a.m. on Saturday and reopens at 10 p.m. on Sunday. Outside of those hours, people can access the main shelter.

The main shelter houses 70 people. In the winter, Shelter House receives an extended use permit allowing overflow in the lobby and clinic spaces, which adds room for an additional 30 people. The winter shelter, usually open from December to March, can house 40 people.

For people experiencing homelessness, the emergency shelter provides a roof over their head, showers, meals and case management. People typically stay one night and up to three months, though Ralston said they’ve had people stay for 12 months.

“Our goal isn’t to just get people out of shelter. The goal is to get people when they leave shelter into housing,” she said.

Shelter House follows the Housing First model, an approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness. Once their basic needs are met, people can then find a stable job, take care of their physical and mental health, and so on.

“When you are experiencing homelessness, that’s not the time to manage an alcohol use or a drug dependency issue,” Ralston said. “It’s not the time to seek, or to expect, stabilization with mental health crises or behavioral health disorders. The reality is folks don’t stabilize until they’re housed.”

For this reason, all of Shelter House’s services are low barrier, meaning there are few entry requirements. For example, the nonprofit stopped breathalyzing individuals around 10 years ago, Ralston said. They also have an amnesty box in the shelter for people to leave prohibited items, which they can retrieve when they leave.

Shelter House is the only emergency shelter provider in Johnson County. Despite the delayed opening, Ralston said they never reached full capacity at the main emergency shelter in December.

“We have not, at any point, had to turn anyone away because we were at capacity,” Ralston said. “We abundantly prefer to have winter shelter open Dec. 1, or even sometimes late November, depending on the weather. It is preferred for a lot of reasons, primarily dignity. Sleeping on a mattress in a lobby is fundamentally different than sleeping in a nice winter shelter.”

In December, the organization provided emergency shelter for 69 people on an average night. The previous year, it had an average of 49 people, Ralston said.

An ‘incredibly difficult job’

Ralston attributed the delayed opening to COVID-19 outbreaks and staffing shortages. Over the last six months, half of direct care staff have contracted the virus, and in the past two weeks, one out of eight direct care staff has had COVID-19.

“It was delayed over and over again, too. So consistently, we were supposed to open last weekend, and then the staffer who was supposed to staff it got COVID,” she said.

The staff is working overtime to keep the winter shelter open, even in its current limited hours, Ralston explained. But if enough staff members contract the virus, Shelter House may have to close it.

“We’re not out of the woods. We can’t guarantee at any point in time that another outbreak, that folks for whom the work was different than what they expected, and you know, don’t stay onboard. We can’t guarantee [winter shelter] will stay,” she said. “The COVID piece is also pretty significant in a way that is really demoralizing.”

Shelter House starts hiring for seasonal shelter coordinators in September. While they struggle to hire coordinators every year, the pandemic has amplified the problem. They’ve had some people not show up on the first day.

“We have struggled mightily to get folks to come in, and we always do. It’s an incredibly difficult job,” she said. “It’s still a possibility that we have to close. The plan is to have it open six days a week and hopefully seven soon. But we’re facing a lot of unknowns, just like everyone else is.”

Ralston said they’ve increased salaries and wages, and added a hiring bonus for new employees, a retention bonus after six weeks and a referral bonus. Winter shelter coordinators are paid $14 an hour. Coordinators that work full-time also receive benefits.

Some community members have argued that Shelter House would have more applications if they increased the hourly wage.

Stephany Hoffelt, a member of Iowa City Mutual Aid Collective (ICMA), sent a letter to Iowa City Council on Dec. 14, writing, “I will say that perhaps if they paid people a living wage to work there, they would get more response. $14 an hour is a ridiculous wage in Iowa City. So it makes sense people aren’t applying.”

On Dec. 13, Shelter House released a call for winter shelter coordinators on their Facebook page. One comment read, “Pay more and you might not have a staff shortage. If there’s a funding issue I bet the very caring executive director can take a pay cut.”

Living wages and compensation packages

For compensation to be presumed reasonable under Internal Revenue Service guidelines, it must use comparability data, said Paul Thelen at the Larned A. Waterman Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center (INRC).

Comparability data examines the type of organization, geographic location and nonprofit size. The organization’s size can be measured by revenue, operating budget, number of employees, and so on. The data also compares an individual’s factors like total years of experience, years at the organization and education.

“The simple truth is that the most valuable asset at most nonprofit organizations are the people. Without the talent to imagine and deliver programs and services, an organization’s impact and effectiveness will likely suffer,” Thelen said.

Shelter House’s Executive Director, Christina Canganelli, received $118,770 in reportable compensation and $11,155 in estimated amount of other compensation in 2019, according to the nonprofit’s federal tax filings.

For comparison, Central Iowa Shelter & Services, Des Moines’ emergency shelter nonprofit, and Shelter House have revenues of around $3.5 million, according to their federal tax forms.

In 2019, Central Iowa Shelter & Services paid CEO Melissa O’Neil $113,572 in reportable compensation and $3,020 in other compensation, an amount consistent with Shelter House.

Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids paid Executive Director Phoebe Trepp $72,356 in reportable compensation and $2,238 in other compensation, according to its 2019 federal tax forms. Willis Dady, however, had a total revenue of $1,392,850, less than half the revenues for Shelter House and Central Iowa Shelter.

The winter shelter is a costly service for Shelter House. Total expenses are $87,814, which includes staffing (wages, FICA, overtime, benefits, unemployment insurance), telecommunication and network, supplies and insurance, said Ralston. But their total revenue is $37,632, including funds from Iowa City, Coralville and Johnson County, which also provides space and utilities. That leaves a more than $50,000 gap that the nonprofit must fill through fundraising.

For broader operations, Shelter House received $95,000 from Johnson County, $219,691 from Iowa City, $17,729 from Coralville and $5,000 from North Liberty, according to an independent audit of its financial statements from 2019. Most of its revenue came from federal and state grants, a total of $2,144,237.

Eighty-five percent of their expenses, or $2,847,226, goes towards their programs, such as the emergency shelter, rapid rehousing, eviction prevention, eviction diversion, the fair weather lodge and housing-first permanent supportive housing programs. The rest goes towards overhead expenses: $213,750 for fundraising, and $297,339 for management.

“We stress in our communications to funders, donors, and board members that a focus on ‘overhead’ oftentimes doesn’t capture the value an individual brings to a particular role,” Thelen said. “So in the final analysis, we are encouraging decisionmakers to focus on earned results versus an expense ratio.”

In 2020, Shelter House provided emergency shelter for 734 individuals, 16 percent of whom were children, its annual report states. The nonprofit also rehoused 403 individuals, 97 percent of whom moved into permanent housing.

In January 2019, Shelter House opened its first permanent supportive housing at Cross Park Place, which provided 24 one-bedroom apartments for individuals exiting chronic homelessness. It also has an onsite medical clinic and psychiatric care. Shelter House is opening another supportive housing with 36 apartments right next to the main shelter.

“Most individuals who moved into Cross Park Place had been on the streets, so literally homeless, street homeless, for between 10 and 30 years,” Ralston said. “These are folks who generally had never lived in an apartment, or at least for the last decade.”

Iowa City’s response to the winter shelter delay

Hoffelt said that ICMA has helped unhoused people that have been turned away from Shelter House. In a letter to city council on Jan. 4, Hoffelt wrote, “The point is that people are sleeping in snow banks and that is not acceptable. So the [question] again I ask with all due respect what is the city going to do for our unhoused neighbors who will otherwise be sleeping outside in tonight’s snowstorm.”

In an email to Little Village, Hoffelt said Iowa City needs to provide emergency shelter for individuals that Shelter House does not serve.

“As one council person said to me this morning, ‘The immediate remaining question is, pointedly: what could the City do that would have solved the issue we faced these last cold weeks?’” she wrote. “The city needs to work to answer that question because there has to be a back-up plan for emergency situations so that when one org hits a snag like the staffing issue, there is redundancy coverage, and people are safe.”

When asked what resources are available to people experiencing homelessness who cannot, or chose not to, access Shelter House, Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin said in an email, “The City has public facilities, such as the Library and Recreation Centers, that often serve as warming locations during operating hours (7 days per week into evening hours). We actively partner with Shelter House for overnight accommodations, and again nobody has been turned away due to lack of capacity.”

Ralston said sometimes people are turned away from Shelter House. As a rule, the nonprofit does not house registered sex offenders because children and families stay in the emergency shelter.

Shelter House will also not serve people who have a “violent behavior issue” that creates a safety concern for others in the shelter, she said. They also cannot serve unaccompanied minors since they are not an authorized youth shelter. And there are many others who have a “healthy mistrust” of these services and choose not to access them.

“It’s hard because the weather is cold, and it’s not safe no matter who you are. We don’t want anybody out in the cold,” Ralston said.

Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Eric Harris worked at Shelter House as a cook during the winter months in 2020.

“In my honest opinion, I saw people get turned away, but it was because of some things they may have done,” he said.

Harris saw people who were too intoxicated and were not permitted inside, though he did not agree with that decision. Other people were temporarily banned for a number of days for violating shelter rules and could not access the shelter, he said.

“When I was there, I saw a lot things that needs to be changed around, like the bans they put on people,” Harris said. “They should be a little more lenient on that part.”

Shelter House offers alternative accommodations when funds are available, such as renting hotel rooms, for those that cannot access the emergency shelter, but it is not a guarantee.

“The expanded use of hotels is one great example of their efforts to work with those in need,” Fruin said in his statement.

Other than the public facilities, which double as daytime warming areas, Fruin did not mention in his email any other emergency housing resources the city provides for unhoused people.

In her letter to city council, Hoffelt wrote, “The city has an obligation to make sure that all people have someplace to go rather than be exposed to the cold, even those who are difficult.”

Shelter is available

Public institutions often rely on nonprofits and other organizations to provide a safety net, Ralston said.

“We live in a world where the public sector does not provide the services that people need,” she said. “So should there be a solution? Yes, but also nobody should ever experience homelessness. We should have affordable housing available for everyone. Everyone should have healthcare. Everyone should have access to high-quality education, and that’s not where we live.”

“I don’t get to solve this problem theoretically. I have to solve this problem within the structure that we live in now,” she added. “Is there a perfect world that I can imagine? Hell yes there is. You know, that world exists, and I actually think it’s possible. But I can’t wait until it arrives ’cause if I wait until it arrives, people die.”

Ralston stressed that they have not reached capacity at any point this winter, and that misinformation in the community can put people’s lives at risk.

“If someone isn’t checking in with us to see whether shelter is available, and is actively perpetuating disinformation, that causes active harm to the community for whom they purport to advocate. And that is a life-threatening decision,” she said. “People die when they don’t know shelter is available.”

Despite the setbacks and delays, the winter emergency shelter is open, for now.

“Shelter is available. Shelter is available. Shelter is available,” Ralston said.

Those interested in the winter shelter coordinator position can apply online. Those interested in volunteering should contact Angelique Frier. Shelter House also accepts donations through their website.