2019 WINTER WEATHER

Cedar Rapids overflow shelter's capacity being tested this winter

Cots with donated bedding are set up at the overflow shelter, in the former Salvation Army on Third Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. The rug is made of recycled shopping bags and was donated by an area church. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Cots with donated bedding are set up at the overflow shelter, in the former Salvation Army on Third Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. The rug is made of recycled shopping bags and was donated by an area church. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids emergency winter overflow shelter is experiencing its busiest winter ever, an official with the organization said Tuesday.

After scrambling to secure a location last fall, the shelter has been open every night since Dec. 1. The space has hosted 373 people, providing 2,670 overnight stays at the shelter through Feb. 11 amid a barrage of severe weather events.

“It’s been really, really busy,” said Phoebe Trepp, executive director of Willis Dady Homeless Services, which helps coordinate the shelter. “It’s been intensely busy. It’s definately been our busiest winter. We’ve had the most consistently high numbers we’ve ever had.”

The shelter has been at capacity most nights, she said. Capacity is 50 people, but there are extra beds in case police pick up someone on the street in the region. The shelter can provide a place to sleep that is not a jail, she said. And, during the polar vortex, people were not turned away, she said.

Still, a handful of people have been sleeping outside throughout the winter, Trepp said.

People usually begin lining up to enter the shelter an hour or two before doors open at 8 p.m. on weekdays or 6 p.m. on the weekend, Trepp said. They must leave by 8 a.m. the next day.

She attributes some of the influx to the central location at 719 Third Ave. SE, a former Salvation Army Thrift Shop, blocks from core services downtown.

“The facility we rented is in a great location,” Trepp said. “It makes it possible for people to walk there from free meal sites and the library. It is great they can get in and get in safely.”

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The space is simple. It’s a large open room. A temporary wall cordons off storage in the rear.

Dozens of cots and mattress with bedding, pillows and personal belongings are arranged to maximize the floor space. In between cots are donated rugs made of recycled plastic grocery bags. There’s a table with a coffee maker and assorted granola bars, and an old tube television sits on a table near the front windows.

“I get a good feeling seeing this,” said Stan Slessor, a Willis Dady volunteer from Brooklyn. “We have a very active approach to the homelessness issue.”

Trepp noted she has been struck this winter by the amount of need that exists, both physical and mental health needs, particularly among the elderly. An overflow shelter is not designed to address those needs, but they may have no other place to turn, she said.

The space has its pros and cons, Trepp said.

While the location is ideal, there have been issues with heating. There are only two toilets, no refrigeration for food, and the roof leaks when it rains.

“The heat has been difficult to maintain at a reasonable level,” Trepp said. “We have thin glass. It’s a big space.”

Colony Heating and Air Conditioning donated a furnace, bringing the number to three furnaces, which has allowed the shelter to keep temperatures “at least into the mid-60s,” she said.

Linn County has announced plans to remodel the current public health building at E Avenue and 13th Street NW into an access center for people in mental health crisis and for those who are homeless and in need of services. Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers said the access center could finally provide a permanent location for a winter emergency overflow shelter.

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Trepp is hopeful that works out, but has also begun exploring options for next winter, including returning to the old Salvation Army.

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

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