Shelter House gets $2.7 million for 'Housing First' project in Iowa City

Construction could begin in October

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IOWA CITY — An apartment building providing shelter to the chronically homeless, but without imposing entrance barriers of a typical shelter, could break ground this fall.

The Iowa Finance Authority announced it was awarding $2.7 million to Shelter House to go toward construction of Shelter House’s FUSE-Housing First Project.

FUSE stands for Frequent User System Engagement and refers to transients caught in a cycle of jails, emergency rooms and substance abuse treatment centers.

Shelter House Director Crissy Canganelli said the finance authority’s funding, coupled with $463,000 awarded by the Housing Trust Fund of Johnson County, will pave the way for construction.

“We’re deeply grateful,” she said Thursday. “It’s a privilege to be able to serve our community in this way.”

Once completed, the FUSE project will be unlike other shelters in that the normal hurdles — staying sober and participating in social services — will be ignored in favor of getting the individuals into housing and allowing them to stabilize, while still offering support services.

Canganelli previously said the “housing first” model — which has been implemented in other cities around the country — represents a “paradigm shift” in the approach to serving the homeless.

Plans for the project call for the construction of a two-story apartment building containing 24, one-bedroom units, as well as common spaces and offices for case management and clinic space for health and behavioral health providers.

The project will cater to the subset of transients identified as both chronically homeless — those who have been homeless for a year or having four stints of homelessness in a three-year period — and a frequent service user. Frequent service users, which represent 3 or 4 percent of the chronically homeless, are those who have had at least two criminal justice system contacts and used at least three agencies — hospitals, shelters and substance abuse facilities — in three years and incurred unreimbursed costs of at least $50,000.

A study that identified four such individuals in Johnson County found those four men cost taxpayers an average of $140,000 in unreimbursed services per year. Over the course of four and a half years, their costs topped $2.1 million.

Without the “housing first” model, Canganelli said the only way things change for men like those followed in the study is death. In fact, two of the men studied have died since 2014, Canganelli said.

“The individuals who will be assisted by this project habitually cycle through emergency rooms, behavioral and mental health services, corrections systems, emergency shelter and support services equating to $140,000 per person a year in the Iowa City community,” said Iowa Finance Authority Executive Director Dave Jamison in a statement.

Canganelli said Shelter House has secured land for the project that has been appropriately zoned. And while she believes the project will not face legal opposition, Canganelli won‘t say yet where the FUSE project will be built.

Canganelli said she intends to meet with the finance authority next week to discuss the next steps, and will hold a neighborhood meeting in the future as well.

“We are eager to get started,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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