IOWA CITY — Although conversations about homelessness in Iowa City this winter have surrounded whether the new Pedestrian Mall benches are hostile, the city has ramped up budget allocations to programs and services to benefit the poorest of its residents in recent years.
Over the last five fiscal years, the Iowa City Council has jumped from spending almost $311,845 in 2014 to more than $3.4 million in fiscal year 2019 on programs or nonprofits that predominantly provide services to help people facing homelessness. Over the span of those five years, the city invested $4,163,202, according to information from City Manager Geoff Fruin’s office.
The current fiscal year saw a major spike in spending than the four previous because of a $2.5 million investment in Johnson County’s Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center. Fiscal year 2018 saw an investment of $753,220.
In addition to the behavioral health center, the city contributed to Shelter House, the Crisis Center of Johnson County, Iowa City Free Medical and Dental Clinic, and Table to Table, among others. Fruin said the city supports a number of other nonprofits with causes such as youth programs and mental health care that may also touch on homelessness issues as well.
As part of a two-year project to improve the Ped Mall’s underground utilities and streetscape, half the old benches were replaced with new ones that have center armrests, making it difficult for people to lie down on the benches and leading some in the community to question whether those benches were intentionally installed to keep homeless people from sleeping on them.
The issue was first raised on social media by nonprofit Catholic Worker House, which held a “sleep in” protest and posted flyers around downtown calling the bench design hostile toward homeless people.
In response, the council last week decided it would use benches without armrests to replace 14 benches that have yet to be installed. Council members also agreed to provide a $10,000 donation to Shelter House and salvage as many of the old painted benches as possible.
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“I just hope the whole focus comes back to being on what we are doing and what we can do that really makes a difference and really helps people. And to provide them a bench to sleep on, that’s not it,” said council member Susan Mims.
Mims said homelessness in Iowa City looks much different today than when she first joined the council in 2010. She said the banning of synthetic drug sales, the creation of an Iowa City Police Department downtown liaison officer and the establishment of a city-sponsored low-barrier winter shelter have improved the situation.
“To me, the most important thing is (helping homeless people is) the right thing to do. But number two, it also fiscally makes a whole lot of sense,” Mims said, adding that many people who are chronically homeless suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues. “Trying to find cost-effective ways to do it certainly is a win-win.”
The city has designated a number of its Community Development Block Grants since fiscal year 2015 to Shelter House. Those funds were used to help purchase land for Cross Park Place, a housing-first project meant to house the most chronically homeless people in Iowa City who have frequent contact with law enforcement, hospitals and services.
A report done around the start of the Cross Park Place project calculated the costs of caring for four such individuals “cost taxpayers an average of $140,000 in unreimbursed services per year. Over the course of four-and-a-half years, their costs topped $2.1 million,” according to a Gazette report from 2017.
“What we’ve tried to do is help Shelter House and other organizations provide the kind of shelter and services that are required to help those individuals return to more normal lives,” Mayor Jim Throgmorton said. “Partly, it’s a matter of ensuring that all people are treated with respect in a way that can help them. But beyond that, it’s fiscally responsible for us to take the kinds of actions that we have.”
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