Government

Cedar Rapids homeless shelter takes stricter stance on bad behavior after increase in police calls

Cots at the winter overflow shelter at the Fillmore Center in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 14, 2019. Nightly police officer walk
Cots at the winter overflow shelter at the Fillmore Center in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 14, 2019. Nightly police officer walk-throughs have helped mitigate issues at the shelter, 520 11th St. NW, which provides a bed and warm place for the night during winter. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids police have begun making regular rounds at a winter overflow shelter for homeless people to help defuse bad behavior, often fueled by alcohol, following an increase in calls from neighbors and several arrests.

Nightly police officer walk-throughs have helped mitigate issues at the Fillmore Center, 520 11th St. NW, which provides a bed and warm place to sleep during winter months, said Phoebe Trepp, of Willis Dady Homeless Services, which staffs the shelter.

A firmer stance with rule breakers and more activities to keep people occupied also have helped on the cold nights when the shelter can fill to 70 people.

“I am not sure what all helped the most, but we have seen a decline since we made all of these changes,” Trepp said.

Since the overflow shelter opened for the year in mid-November, police have received 82 calls for service, according to police data. This included 41 for disturbances and 31 for medical needs, as well an assortment of calls for theft, a warrant, a possible missing person, fire alarm, someone who wanted to talk to an officer and an animal issue.

Ten arrests have been made including seven for public intoxication, two for warrants or follow-up investigations and one for disorderly conduct.

Police Lt. Tony Robinson has encouraged staff to be tougher with those violating the rules, noting it would send a message of what is and isn’t acceptable “for the good of everyone else.” Most people just mind their business and are there to sleep, he said.

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“It’s a handful of individuals causing most of the issues, causing disturbances requiring a police response,” he said, adding the new steps “seem to be helping.”

The issues have largely been nuisances — people shouting verbal altercations, and drinking alcohol in the neighborhood — rather than violence. A third of the calls were for medical reasons, which draws police, fire and ambulance with lights and sirens adding to the commotion in the residential neighborhood, Robinson said.

Overflow is a wet shelter, which means it admits intoxicated people. Robinson and Trepp noted alcohol coupled with mental health issues is a recipe for more problems. Trepp noted the staff is trying to provide a safety net for people living on the streets when the temperature can be dangerously low.

“When it is cold out, staff can have a hard time kicking people out, especially when they know it is connected to a mental health issue,” Trepp said. Under the new approach, the staff has banned two people permanently.

News reports by KCRG-TV brought concerns of neighbors to City Council attention, prompting a call for an explanation. The city helps fund the overflow shelter each year.

“This is an issue that obviously is really important to many of us, and we care deeply about,” council member Ann Poe said.

This is the shelter’s first year at the Linn County-owned Fillmore Center. It had been rotating to different locations each year, depending on what was available.

County officials had discussed the Fillmore Center as a permanent home for overflow, but that is uncertain.

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County supervisors last week approved a new roof for the Fillmore. The county budgeted $909,500 for the project, and it is now out for bids.

“I think it’s been a very worthwhile investment on our part,” Supervisor Ben Rogers said at a meeting last month. “There’s not much life left in it (because of the condition of the roof). We would be irresponsible landlords for allowing it to continue.”

Darrin Gage, Linn County director of policy & Administration, said the assessed value of the building is $2.3 million. While there have been some discussions about selling the building someday, there are no plans to do so now.

“If we were to sell the building as is, that would be reflected in the sales price,” Gage said. “Doing this improvement, while we might not get dollar for dollar back, would raise the sales price.”

If the Abbe Center, a tenant offering mental health services, extends its lease with the county, additional renovations of the Fillmore Center could include showers.

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

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