116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For most of us, people living in poverty are invisible. When we do think of them (and there are 34 million in the United States), we think of their lacking food and the resulting hunger. At a caring moment, we make a small contribution to a community food bank. Fed is better than hungry, but there is much more to living poor.
There are families in barren apartments, sleeping, eating, trying to study on the floor, eating on it, doing homework on it. Some are young and flexible; others are old and stiff. Imagine your 80-year-old grandmother struggling to get up after a night of aches.
That unseen misery in our middle class, reasonably affluent, Eastern Iowa won’t go away. Every year, several thousand adults are released from prison, more are escaping domestic violence, and the homeless are moving up to empty apartments. They are close by, but a world apart. We don’t see them in church or in Theisen’s or at Hawkeye games.
If they can get jobs, it is almost always at a low wage. If they are fortunate enough to get an apartment, often with county social service help, it is barren. That means no beds to sleep on, no tables to eat off, no towel to dry their hands. Buying toilet paper is just short of a luxury. It is not a problem likely to be solved on a federal or state level. Local governments may try, but citizen efforts seem most effective today.
In both Linn and Johnson counties, volunteers are at work to help. In Iowa City, Houses into Homes, begun by two volunteers, has “enhanced” over 800 apartments in less than three years. They started by keeping used mattresses out of landfills and putting them in apartments. They expanded into supplying tables, chairs, and kitchen utensils.
At a home visit to arrange for a delivery just before Christmas, a mother said that her young boy “was counting the days.” Asked, “’Until Christmas?” The eight year old said ”No, until I get my bed.”
A Johnson County aging specialist recently said that he worked with “aging adults who were sleeping on the floor because they couldn’t afford a bed. … The impact (Houses into Homes) made on them has been immense.”
In Cedar Rapids, a similar organization, Central Furniture Rescue, has helped households with over 2,000 people, half of them children. Some of those families with low-paying jobs spend 75 percent of their income on rent. In an eight-hour workday, six of those hours belong to the landlord. Two hours of a minimum wage hardly buys much. What Central Furniture provides for that first bit of comfort, is worth about $500 spent at Goodwill or Salvation Army. It us not much, but it is everything.
Both nonprofits have struggled during the pandemic. Volunteers have been fewer, deliveries more complicated. Now, as conditions improve, they don’t leave a delivery just inside the door. They put beds together; they place everything where it needs to go. Poverty is visible to them.
Norman Sherman of Coralville has worked extensively in politics, including as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary, and authored a memoir “From Nowhere to Somewhere.”