I consider Cedar Rapids and Linn County both great places to raise a family, start a business and enjoy a high quality of life. However, over the past decade our community has been experiencing a steady and alarming rise in homelessness, including those at-risk of becoming homeless, due to a decline in available and affordable housing and an increase in untreated mental health issues, substance abuse and domestic violence.
I was recently appointed by Gov. Kim Reynolds to serve on the Iowa Council on Homelessness and I am working with homeless service providers, advocacy groups, businesses and government to better address the rise in homelessness in Linn County.
One such effort is a partnership between Linn County and the city of Cedar Rapids to fund a cold weather shelter open every day from Nov, 15 to March 15 for the homeless to get out of the cold, have a place to sleep and eat. Last year the cold weather shelter was only open when the weather dropped below 32 degrees and 328 unduplicated individuals were served in Cedar Rapids.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines a homeless person as “sleeping in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation; or a person in transitional housing for homeless people who originally came from the street or an emergency shelter”. In 2017, 397 individuals received services from homeless providers or found living on the street according to the Linn County Continuum of Care; a 58-member voluntary planning and advisory group of homeless providers, advocates and nonprofits working to prevent and eliminate homelessness in Linn County.
The most alarming statistics were children in Linn County made up the largest population of homeless, totaling 41 percent. Women comprised 31 percent, and men held 28 percent. Over the last decade, children have consistently made up over 40 percent of the homeless population. We can and must do better for the well-being of children.
Affordable and available housing is one of the most important services needed in our community to adequately tackle homelessness and be proactive in identifying individuals and families at risk of becoming homeless.
I will be working with Linn County, the city of Cedar Rapids and service providers to advance the Housing First model, which is an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent supportive housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements. The Housing First model has been successful across the nation, including in Iowa, and has proved to be cost-beneficial when compared to not serving those experiencing homelessness, resulting in many accessing more costly services to taxpayers like hospitalization or jail. Implementing the Housing First model could rapidly serve our community’s most vulnerable population.
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Cedar Rapids and Linn County have a long history of providing critical services and support those in need. I believe with greater awareness, programs, housing and compassion we can begin to reverse the trend of homelessness in our community.
• Ben Rogers is a supervisor in Linn County