CEDAR RAPIDS — In March, the Willis Dady Homeless Shelter announced a $3 million fundraising campaign that would allow the organization to expand and renovate its shelter at 1247 Fourth Ave. SE.
The expansion would add 15,000 square feet to the existing 31,000-square-foot facility. The project also would entail a renovation of the 30-year-old building, which originally was converted from being a former halfway house into a shelter.
The organization set a goal of raising $2.5 million by this fall in order to break ground before winter. On Sept. 1, it reached that goal.
Here’s what Phoebe Trepp, director of Willis Dady, has to say about the upcoming project:
Q: Were you relieved that you can start construction this fall?
A: It was really, really exciting and kind of surreal because I knew we would get there, I just didn’t know when. To be able to look back on how hard we worked this summer, it’s like “OK it worked out.” It felt like a huge relief. (Construction) will likely be in October and start with pouring some foundation work before the ground freezes for the full expansion piece. That piece has both components of shelter and office space, so we will stay open for our clients throughout the whole thing.
Q: Why do you think Eastern Iowans felt strongly enough about the project to contribute more than $2.5 million in about five months, and especially right before September?
A: “Summer is difficult because people are all over. Going into the school year, people know more about what they’ll be able to commit. Knowing that we’ll circle back around to winter and waiting until another full winter to start doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’ve also been doing a good job of getting people to tour the building and not just going to them in their offices. When they can come to the building, it’s much more apparent what the problems are and how we can drastically improve what we do by just improving the facility.
Q: What are some of the problems the expansion and renovation will solve?
A: The big thing is the accessibility and safety of the building. We still lack the ability to have someone in a wheelchair. We’ve gone through intakes where we do the whole intake and find out one family member can’t walk up steps because of a knee injury or something ... and they cannot stay. We’re adding a basement for storm shelters ... right now we have nowhere to go. We’ll also be able to help third-shift men who are working. They can come back at 2 or 3 in the morning, which they can’t now. We’ll be able to have four very low income rental units for the first time ever.
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Q: Can you tell me how having rental units helps provide longer-term solutions for chronic homelessness in Linn County?
A: We’re trying to address the needs of people who are very low income and in poverty despite the interventions we provide. We are thousands of units short in terms of affordable housing for people to pay less than 30 percent of their income. When you get into people who are on Social Security disability or benefits so the maximum of their income is under $700, there’s just a really large gap. When you think of units for $250 (a month) that would be safe, desirable, a place someone would be proud to live in, that just doesn’t exist in our community. It’s just a pilot project to show this can be done in mixed-use development, maybe more people can consider incorporating affordable housing.
Q: If Eastern Iowans aren’t ready or able to give a monetary donation to reach the $3 million goal, what are some other ways they can help?
A: I’m really proud of our volunteer program. It’s gone from a couple each month to now we have over 20 each month. A lot of times people just think of cleaning up the building and doing yardwork, which is a need, but we have a schedule of front desk volunteers. We don’t have the administrative staff to answer the door and the phone all the time. When we have a volunteer, it’s a huge relief. We have overnight volunteers that we’ve really tried to push about four years ago in an effort to save money and increase awareness of what we do. For the first time this summer we had a full month of coverage, which meant we didn’t have to pay staff for sleeping here. We also have events to fundraise for operations and shorter term commitments.
Q: What kind of feedback are you receiving about the shelter expansion?
A: I don’t think we anticipated how much positive input we would get. When we look at our asking numbers, 80 percent of them were a yes, though it wasn’t always the full amount. That’s a huge testament that when people come through the building, they can see the need and see the impact on our agency. It really opens our eyes to the potential.
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