116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Photo essay: Finding warmth in Iowa winter
CEDAR RAPIDS — It’s no secret that winter in Iowa can be brutal. With polar vortexes making their way into Eastern Iowa, wind chills this winter made the temperature feel like 40 below zero at times.
These conditions can become deadly quickly for the homeless population. But options for finding a safe and warm place to sleep often are limited.
Linn County’s overflow shelter in Cedar Rapids, operated by Willis Dady Homeless Services, is one place. But with its hours being limited to sleeping only, people are left to wander the city looking for another place to stay warm until they can return.
Many people flock to the libraries, mall and day shelters. After temperatures plummeted around the holidays, warming shelters like that run by the Salvation Army opened.
At the warming shelter, Gazette photojournalist Savannah Blake spoke with several of the homeless individuals who stopped in. A majority of the people felt frustrated by having to carry all of their belongings with them during the day.
The overflow shelter requires people staying there take their belongings with them when they leave in the morning. They use carts, luggage and backpacks to transport their most important items and often have to leave other things behind.
During Christmastime, the shelter remained open to people 24 hours due to the dropping temperatures. The relief of knowing they didn’t have to leave for a couple days allowed people to unpack their items and temporarily relax.
The overflow shelter, while warm, is cramped. The space can sleep up to 100 people. Cots are spread around the floor with a majority of the space being used by men. The women have their own area in the back, with just a blanket separating the two.
Some people there have jobs, but can’t afford housing.
Other people have had everything stolen, like Nicholas Fox. He has been homeless since 2021 when he said his identity was stolen by a friend.
Angela Jones stayed at the shelter on Christmas Day. Before temperatures dropped, she said she was living in her truck after leaving an abusive relationship. A few days before Christmas, she was hospitalized and could no longer stay in her vehicle with her two dogs. As a flagger, work for the winter is hard to find so she turned to the overflow shelter to temporarily find a place to call home for her and her two dogs.
Shelter Services Director Denine Rushing said a lot of people — especially elderly people — rely on the overflow shelter in the winter. According to Rushing, the first year an overflow shelter opened in 2015 it served 93 people. From Nov. 15 to 28, it severed 159.
“Housing should be a human right,” Rushing said. She believes that the community should be limiting barriers like requiring three times the rent to sign a lease or denying applications from people with criminal records.
“On Christmas and Thanksgiving people are willing to give, but they need to help year-round and shine a light on affordable housing,” Rushing said.