116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Faced with staff shortages and illnesses, Shelter House opened its winter overnight shelter this week later than expected, but nonetheless hasn’t turned away those in need because of the delay.
The winter shelter, which opened Tuesday night, is next to the GuideLink Center on 340 Southgate Ave. It is just down the street from Shelter House’s emergency shelter at 429 Southgate Ave.
Christine Ralston, director of development at Shelter House, said the winter shelter is open from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m., six days a week. The winter shelter is closed Saturday nights, but individuals needing aid can go to the emergency shelter instead.
Ralston said the organization wanted to open in December and operate seven days a week. Shelter House posted on Facebook in November that the anticipated opening date was Dec. 1, 2021.
But the organization wasn’t able to open until a month later due to staffing shortages and current staff getting sick with COVID-19.
“We had been prepared to open up last weekend and then had to delay that for a few more days after someone got sick and (had) to rearrange schedules,” Ralston said.
Over the last several months, half of Shelter House’s direct care staff has been infected with COVID-19, Ralston said. One out of eight direct care staff has had COVID-19 in the last two weeks, she added.
“The chess game of staffing changes from moment to moment, and just because we're open doesn't mean we're out of the woods,” Ralston said.
In Linn County, which said it didn’t experience the staffing shortage, the overflow shelter has been open since Nov. 15.
Despite the challenges of getting the winter shelter open, Ralston said Shelter House has not turned away individuals. She said there has been disinformation in the community indicating there isn’t space available, which is not the case.
“Giving the impression that there is not space available at shelter is a life-threatening decision,” Ralston said. “If someone gives the impression without having confirmed the facts that we don't have space and that means someone doesn't show up at our door and those people are at imminent risk, that's life or death.”
The emergency shelter has a capacity to shelter 70 individuals, Ralston said. During the winter time, the organization gets a special use permit to allow an additional 30 individuals to stay overnight in the lobby. Ralston added the organization is “nowhere near” its overflow capacity.
When the winter shelter opens depends on the weather and staffing. The winter shelter has an additional 40 beds.
A winter storm last weekend dropped 7.5 inches northeast of Iowa City and bitter wind chills are expected this week.
“Ultimately, everything we do is responsive to conditions, so if it got cold sooner we’d find another way to keep people safe, like the lobby,” Ralston said. “When the weather's cold, we're not going to turn someone away because there isn't space. We're going to find space that is that is safe.”
Ralston said it’s a “constant chess game” to maximize resources based on the situation. The organization has also sheltered families in hotel rooms to create extra space at the shelter.
In December 2020, the organization sheltered 49 individuals on average a night between emergency shelter, winter shelter and hotels. A year later, in December 2021, 69 people a night were sheltered in emergency shelter and hotels.
"Despite not having the separate winter shelter physically open, we actually sheltered 20 more people on average a night in 2021 than in 2020,“ Ralston said.
Individuals needing shelter are encouraged to come to the emergency shelter at 429 Southgate Ave. or call 319-351-0326. The overnight shelter is down the street, 340 Southgate Ave.
The winter overflow shelter in Linn County, which is operated by Willis Dady Homeless Services, is located at the Fillmore Center, 520 11th St. NW, and is open 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days a week.
“We did hire more staff this year than previous years due to capacity, so we now have three staff on per shift per day,” said Alicia Faust, the organization’s executive director
Faust said when the winter shelter opens is based on the weather, how many individuals are sleeping unsheltered and if there is capacity to open early.
“This year it was determined (to open on Nov. 15) as there were over 100 people sleeping unsheltered in our community and the last location they had to camp in was shut down the week before we opened, and the weather drastically changed the week prior to us opening,” Faust said.
The county recently closed on the building that will become a permanent homeless overflow shelter in the winter. Faust said renovations are needed and the new building is expected to be occupied later in the year during the next winter season.
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