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People living on the streets in Linn County skyrockets as winter arrives

Thousands seek help as derecho and pandemic make bad situation worse

Johnny Ray Delgado and his
Johnny Ray Delgado and his girlfriend, Mary Sand, keep warm Nov. 15 using a bowl of hand sanitizer lit on fire while hanging out in their tent at a homeless encampment in Cedar Rapids. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

This is the first installment of an occasional series.

CEDAR RAPIDS — As the temperature dropped to freezing in her tent, Mary Sand poured a large bottle of liquid hand sanitizer into a bowl on the floor.

After filling the jagged, corrugated aluminum container with a few ounces of the high-alcohol solution, she sparked her cigarette lighter and moved it carefully toward the bowl, lighting a flame as blue as her blanket to dance on the surface.

As Willis Dady Homeless Services prepared to open its overflow winter shelter for the first day of the season Nov. 15, this is how she stayed warm in a site that goes unseen by most. The first snow of winter accumulating on Sand’s tent roof signaled an imminent eviction as she huddled around the unconventional heat source

South of the New Bohemia district, her tent sits among a little-known village of homeless people. Hidden by hills and trees, Sand settled there when the community sprouted up in March.

“Frankly, it’s kind of upsetting to see so many new names and faces.” — Aaron Terrones, support services director for Willis Dady Homeless Services

With the opening of the low-barrier shelter with no entry requirements for the winter months, Willis Dady advocates expect the encampment to be bulldozed by the city. Unhoused for the last six years, Sand has been kicked out of her settlements in various seasons more times than she can count.

Mary Sand grabs a feather
Mary Sand grabs a feather charm she made while keeping warm Nov. 15 with a lit bowl of hand sanitizer in her tent at a homeless encampment in Cedar Rapids. “They say God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, but let me tell you, there’s a limit sometimes,” said Sand, 56, in an interview. “There is a point of breaking.” (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

“They say God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, but let me tell you, there’s a limit sometimes,” said Sand, 56. “There is a point of breaking.”

After living homeless in Colorado for several years, the Cedar Rapids native left her partner behind to return to Iowa. With seven trespassing citations received over the course of a month while living homeless in Colorado Springs, partner Johnny Ray Delgado followed her to Cedar Rapids about a month ago.

In years past, the couple survived winters at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain by building an underground dugout. But as another winter approached faster than expected, the couple of Native American descent prayed for a housing miracle underneath the handmade dream catcher hanging in their tent.

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“We’re not bad people. There’s a lot of good people out here,” said Sand. “People see the bad (in us), they don’t see the good.”

Linn’s unsheltered population triples

Delgado and Sand are part of a growing population in Linn County. Since July 2019, the summer street counts of homeless people living in encampments like theirs has more than tripled, from 33 to 107.

The biannual Point in Time counts, conducted by Willis Dady and Waypoint volunteers, help calculate the size of the homeless population, including the number of people sleeping in places not meant for habitation. This year’s summer tally of those living outdoors was the first time in recent memory the number surpassed 100. A decade ago, it was 11.

“The magnitude of people experiencing a housing crisis and reaching out for support is unprecedented. The people in housing are struggling to maintain their housing.” — J’nae Peterman, director of Waypoint housing services

Over the last four months, advocates at Willis Dady estimate, the unsheltered population has increased another 50 percent. Support Services Director Aaron Terrones said his team has gone from handling two or three referrals per week to about five per day.

“We’re not recognizing the names, which is crazy to us,” he said. “Frankly, it’s kind of upsetting to see so many new names and faces.”

Denise Yuengel poses for a
Denise Yuengel poses for a portrait Nov. 15 outside of her camp at a homeless encampment in Cedar Rapids. Denise refers to herself as “Ma” and her husband, Tim, as “Pa” because they often help out new residents to the encampment. She says she feels bad taking a bed at the homeless shelter because she is more equipped to live in the outdoors in comparison to newly homeless individuals. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Staff at Willis Dady and Waypoint have seen a marked increase in the number of elderly clients and clients entering homelessness for the first time. Some fear the problem will get worse before it gets any better.

Denise Yuengel, a member of the Cedar Rapids homeless community known as “Ma,” said she’s seen about a dozen faces new to homelessness in the encampment this year. Some have become homeless since the pandemic and derecho. Others experienced a sudden change in their finances.

“There are people out here for various reasons. There are people out here you won’t find,” she said. “There are people out here who you don’t know their name, and that’s OK.”

A wedding photo sits among
A wedding photo sits among a person’s belongings Nov. 15 at a homeless encampment in Cedar Rapids. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

But Ma declined to say exactly how many lived on the site, which Terrones called one of the biggest he’d seen in his four years at Willis Dady.

“That’s a number we don’t like to discuss,” Yuengel told The Gazette. “The number out here either mobilizes the city or scares them.”

Wes Shirley, a Willis Dady Library Navigator and one of the most trusted staffers among the homeless community, said homeless encampment clearing is a “constant push and pull” that sows turmoil. Each time a site is cleared, residents lose possessions. With no house or apartment to call home, possessions they hold take on a scarcer value.

“Anything they find has value,” he said. “A lot of our folks growing up never had material possessions.”

Larry Burgin walks past a
Larry Burgin walks past a campsite while going to get food donated by Willis Dady at a homeless encampment Nov. 15 in Cedar Rapids, Willis Dady Library Navigator Wes Shirley (not pictured) said the residents of the encampment know most of each other and look out for one another. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Denise and husband, Tim Yuengel, fittingly called “Pa,” have been homeless since they were illegally evicted from their last home, she said. As lifelong recreational campers, the couple may try to brave the weather this winter.

“I feel irresponsible taking a (shelter) bed when I can survive out here,” Denise said.

After Willis Dady first opened the overflow winter shelter in 2013, it served 38 people in its first season. Last winter, it served 623.

Housing insecurity calls skyrocket

“Housing is the solution to homelessness,” said Alicia Faust, executive director of Willis Dady.

The increase in homelessness and the decrease in affordable housing stock in Cedar Rapids, both exacerbated by the pandemic and derecho, have gone hand in hand. A population that was always close to the brink of homelessness became unable to rely on overwhelmed family support systems.

Various items sit outside of
Various items sit outside of a resident’s campsite Nov. 15 at a homeless encampment in Cedar Rapids. Many homeless camps don’t last more than a few weeks, making it hard for individuals to bring all their belongings with them. This encampment has been the longest standing that Willis Dady employees have known of recently. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

In fiscal 2019, Waypoint’s housing services served 3,000 people who were at risk of losing housing. This fiscal year, they served 13,000, roughly two-thirds of whom are first-time clients — a departure from past trends.

In the same time frame, the non-profit's phone lines went from fielding about 75 calls per day to 1,000. About four out of five callers are diverted to self-resolution plans, such as asking their landlord for an extension or getting a paycheck advance from work to make next month’s rent. But 3 percent of callers diverted to self-resolution plans still become homeless.

“The magnitude of people experiencing a housing crisis and reaching out for support is unprecedented,” said J’nae Peterman, director of housing services for Waypoint. “The people in housing are struggling to maintain their housing.”

A group of tents and
A group of tents and belongings sit out in the snow Nov. 15 at a homeless encampment in Cedar Rapids. Willis Dady Support Services Director Aaron Terrones said, “These are some of the most biggest and most elaborate setups I’ve seen because they haven’t moved them this year.” (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Once people enter the cycle of homelessness, it’s substantially more difficult for them to escape.

Johnson homelessness remains stable

Shelter House in Iowa City, Johnson County’s only provider of shelter services, has not seen the same increase in homelessness as Linn County.

The nonprofit’s annual January Point in Time count, which is required for federal funding eligibility from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, has remained stable between 15 and 20 for the last several years.

Shelter House does not typically conduct July Point in Time counts like Linn County’s agencies, due to a lack of staffing and a year-round low-barrier shelter in Iowa City. Low-barrier shelters do not have any requirements to be admitted, such as sobriety.

In addition to a smaller population and less derecho damage in Johnson County, Shelter House has built 60 apartments — 24 units opened in January 2019 and 36 opened in June. These units offer a home to those experiencing chronic homelessness who would otherwise be unable to get their own rental for a variety of reasons, such as poor rental history.

“This is not something that exists in a lot of other places,” said Christine Hayes, development director.

Soon, Shelter House plans to temporarily expand its 100-bed shelter by another 30 beds for winter. But for now, the demand has not overwhelmed the existing beds.

“We currently have 100 spaces at emergency shelter and we’re not coming anywhere close to capacity,” said Hayes. “We never had more than 80 people in emergency shelter during this time frame last year.”

In Cedar Rapids, the housing market already was struggling has keep up with demand. This year, the overall vacancy rate dropped to 1.3 percent, according to the Comprehensive Housing Needs Update prepared in July for the city of Cedar Rapids. To promote competitive rents, 5 percent is considered a healthy vacancy rate.

Larry Burgin stands Nov. 15
Larry Burgin stands Nov. 15 in front of the shelter he made at a homeless encampment in Cedar Rapids. He has been living in the camp since it first formed in March. The encampment is expected to be bulldozed by the city in the coming weeks. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Year over year, rents have increased by 3 to 5 percent on average, the report said. After the August 2020 derecho, Faust noted that landlords who could not afford repairs on units would often sell them to other landlords, who would address the repairs and then increase rents.

“We knew we were in a housing crisis. I don’t think we recognized that so many people were sleeping in the streets on a nightly basis,” Peterman said. “Housing options in the community are no longer meeting the needs of the most vulnerable population, who cycle through housing interventions that aren’t meeting their needs.”

A pair of angel wings
A pair of angel wings lays on the ground Nov. 15 at a homeless encampment in Cedar Rapids. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

After distributing $700,000 in rental assistance this fiscal year, Willis Dady recently exhausted its rental assistance funds.

“It was a Band-Aid,” Terrones said.

Now that is being painfully ripped off, exposing a wound far from healed.

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A makeshift kitchen sits covered
A makeshift kitchen sits covered in snow and ice Nov. 15 after Iowa temperatures plummeted at a homeless encampment in Cedar Rapids. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)