Government

Cedar Rapids homeless brave bitter temperatures as emergency shelter has yet to open

Scott Clark, 43, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, carries his possessions onto the street after eating dinner at Green Square Meals in southeast Cedar Rapids on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Scott Clark, 43, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, carries his possessions onto the street after eating dinner at Green Square Meals in southeast Cedar Rapids on Monday, Nov. 12, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Scott Clark, 43, of Cedar Rapids, had been squatting near the old Sinclair plant site until he was pushed out, and before that in an open semi-trailer a friend told him about.

On Sunday night when the temperature dropped to 23 degrees, he stayed with three others outside the downtown Ground Transportation Center under an overhang and planned to do the same on Monday night when it was forecast to dip to 13 degrees. They must be packed up by 5 a.m., at which point they can go inside the transportation center and get warm, he said. With the library and other public facilities closed on Monday for Veterans Day, several homeless people spent much of the day at the transportation center.

“The overflow shelter last year was a blessing and a savior,” Clark said. “When it’s minus 20 degrees, we can’t be out here. Even an abandoned building with no heat would be nice.”

As temperatures drop, members of Cedar Rapids’ homeless population say an emergency winter shelter is urgently needed. Advocates, who hoped to have a shelter open by Thursday, are zeroing in on a location, but one hasn’t been locked down yet.

Phoebe Trepp, executive director of Willis Dady Homeless Services, said organizers expect to formalize a deal for a location in the southeast quadrant on Tuesday and have it open by Dec. 1.

Tony Goodwin, 45, who was homeless for two years and now works to help others who are homeless, including serving free meals at Green Square Meals on Monday evening, said getting the shelter open is critical.

“People are going to freeze to death,” Goodwin said. “You go into hypothermia real fast.”

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Victor Bottomley, 19, of Cedar Rapids, has been sleeping in a parking lot stairwell and plans to continue until he gets kicked out. The location is blocked from the wind and elements, but with only a blanket it still gets cold, he said.

“It was cold,” said Bottomley, who keeps his possession nearby in a few bags. “We didn’t have the wind, but it was cold because there’s no heating in the stairwell.”

Adren Wilbourn, 44, has been homeless for about half the year she’s been in Cedar Rapids and is currently staying with a friend. Her 17-year-old son is staying at Foundation 2 Crisis Center’s youth shelter because Wilbourn doesn’t have a place for him.

“I’ve been trying to get into a lot of shelters and they say they have nothing open. Check back tomorrow. I hope they find something fast,” she said of the overflow shelter.

Trepp said the anticipated location, which will be announced when the agreement is reached, is in a commercial space a five-minute walk from Greene Square. It will be large enough to hold 40 to 50 people, which would accommodate the population expected to be living outdoors here this winter, she said. Last year, 470 different people were served by the overflow shelter. The building that housed last year’s shelter was sold creating the need to find somewhere new.

Cedar Rapids has approximately 75 permanent beds for the homeless and additional beds for unique circumstances.

Several possible locations had surfaced as advocates sought a shelter for this winter.

They all came with challenges, including the one that could be announced Tuesday. It is at least twice Willis Dady’s $5,000 budget for the winter season and needs some repairs, including a new window, Trepp said. She said the organization may try to fundraise to fill the gap or close the shelter earlier than planned in the spring. The shelter was expected to stay open until mid-to-late March.

Other locations didn’t comply with city building or fire code because they had stairs or lacked a sprinkler system. Trepp lamented the challenge of finding a suitable place.

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“The city doesn’t want to put anyone in danger, but there’s a lot of danger to being outside and sleeping in the street,” Trepp said.

City officials have been working with Trepp and others to identify a safe location, and the city has been open to accommodations such as allowing someone serve as a fire watch in lieu of a sprinkler system, as long as the building met other codes.

“The city is committed to helping, but we don’t want to put the most vulnerable people at risk,” said Jennifer Pratt, the Cedar Rapids community development director.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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