CEDAR RAPIDS — When the derecho blew its destructive winds through Cedar Rapids and surrounding counties Aug. 10, Matt Majeski immediately knew things would be bad.
The service area manager overseeing field operations in 17 counties, including Linn, for the Iowa Department of Human Services, he could see the damage from the windows of his office in the Linn County Community Services Building on 26th Avenue Court SW in Cedar Rapids.
His first worry was for his staff — more than 100 people in Linn County — and the second was how they would serve the families they work with.
The office’s main tasks include overseeing support for foster and adoptive families, providing services for child abuse cases and dependent adult abuse, overseeing Medicaid services in the area and assisting refugees, among other things.
The staff has hundreds of families receiving case management in Linn County, Majeski said. In the days after the storm, unable to reach all their clients with the cellular network spotty and power out, staff started going door to door to check in with people. They quickly realized housing was one of the biggest immediate concerns.
Cedar Rapids firefighters deemed more than 1,000 housing units “unsafe” to occupy in the days after the storm. While many would be removed from that list with repairs, a lot of people were left trying to figure out where to sleep.
For some, the need was just for a few nights until trees could be lifted off a building or tarp put on a roof; for others, it meant trying to find a new place to live entirely because their apartment or house was destroyed.
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Many found friends or family to stay with, but that wasn’t an option for everyone, or is only a short term solution. For some, the family and friends they could otherwise rely on were in the same situation.
“One of the things I’m so struck by is, I have a support system, most folks do, but what if my support system is all living right there and all were impacted? How do you recover from that?” Majeski asked.
Several southwest Cedar Rapids apartment complexes were badly hit by the storm, as were mobile homes, with many units a total loss. So the need was clear, but housing was something the office didn’t have experience with.
“I’ve never touched housing until that Sunday” after the storm, Majeski said. “Housing is not a traditional area for DHS to help support.”
So the office partnered with nonprofits including the Catherine McAuley Center, the Intercultural Center, Young Parent Network, RefugeeRise and others that came together in a coalition to assist the refugee and immigrant community.
The Human Services office organized a meeting last week between state refugee coordinator Mak Suceska and residents living around the Glenbrook apartment complex, organized by the Immigrant and Refugee Association. Suceska said the department is normally restricted to offering services to refugees for five years after they have settled in the United States, but those restrictions were lifted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Glenbrook resident Immaculee Mukahigiro, originally from Rwanda, told him the issues go beyond housing as people struggle to cope with the aftermath of the storm.
“Because of the war back in Africa, we still have depression, and this makes us have depression more. The depression comes back again,” she said. “We are worried.”
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Suceska took down phone numbers of residents who were seeking answers on how long they would need to wait for their apartments to be repaired, how they could replace spoiled food and how they could get to work with smashed cars, and promised to follow up with them. Access to information across language barriers has been one of the biggest challenges.
On the housing side, Catherine McAuley Center opened a temporary shelter for immigrant families, serving about 50 people. Human Services organized hotel rooms for about 98 additional people, funded by Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The Red Cross also set up a shelter at the Veteran’s Memorial Building in downtown Cedar Rapids, which since closed, as well as covering around 1,500 overnight hotel stays as of last week.
“It has been a huge collaborative effort across multiple agencies,” Majeski said. “We were focusing on the refugee community and others living in those apartment buildings on the southwest side, and we’ve done some outreach to the mobile home parks.”
The coalition is now working with the displaced families to find long-term solutions. An acute challenge is a shortage of vacant and affordable apartments, especially ones that are not studios or single bedrooms as many of the families have children. The Cedar Rapids Housing Authority has stepped in to help locate apartments, Majeski said.
Outreach also has included working with the nonprofit coalition to help community members sign up for benefits like food assistance and individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as allowed under the federal disaster declaration, as well as identifying other resources.
Human Services also has been taking on duties like arranging disaster food assistance, available to people not eligible for normal SNAP benefits. That assistance is available through Sunday, with on-site applications being processed until 7 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Ladd Library parking lot, 3750 Williams Blvd. SW, Cedar Rapids; the U.S. Cellular Center, 370 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids; and the Marion Square Shopping Center, 1107 Seventh Ave., Marion.
Tuesday at the Ladd Library site, members of the nonprofit coalition helped with translation into languages including French and Swahili.
“It’s truly been one of those ‘it takes a village’ responses,” Majeski said.
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