IOWA DERECHO 2020

Sens. Joni Ernst, Chuck Grassley hear from hard-pressed nonprofits in Cedar Rapids

The safety-net list: virus, unemployment, housing, food, mental health, derecho

Sen. Joni Ernst responds to a comment at a Wednesday roundtable with Cedar Rapids nonprofits about the unmet needs follo
Sen. Joni Ernst responds to a comment at a Wednesday roundtable with Cedar Rapids nonprofits about the unmet needs following the Aug. 10 derecho. Ernst and Sen. Chuck Grassley (at left) met with the leaders of the nonprofits, which has hard pressed to meet the ever expanding needs cause by unemployment, the pandemic and the derecho. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Layer upon layer of issues — coronavirus pandemic, unemployment, housing and food insecurity, mental health and a derecho — that have challenged Iowans over the past six months also have created an urgency among Cedar Rapids’ safety net organizations.

“These two disasters have stretched the safety net as thin as it can be stretched,” Les Garner of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation told Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst on Wednesday during a meeting with area nonprofits.

Like the people they serve, many nonprofits suffered damage in the Aug. 10 hurricane-force winds that, in some cases, challenges their ability to continue serving, he said.

“All of these organizations have been working valiantly to maintain their existing operations” before the derecho, Garner said, “and now go beyond that to expand. The need for support to sustain the nonprofit organizations as they help lead us through this crisis is extraordinary.”

Ernst and Grassley heard about specific needs during the hourlong meeting at the The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, some they hope can be incorporated into the next pandemic relief package.

However, Grassley said the needs presented by nonprofits probably won’t be what holds up agreement.

“It’s probably not the things they talked about here that are very controversial,” he said. “It’s things like the enhanced federal unemployment that would go along with state unemployment insurance and aid to state and local communities like we did in the first (CARES Act). Those tend to be the two things that are holding up everything.”

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Others should be easier to address, Ernst said, referring to Alejandro Pino of YPN, who said YPN has distributed 150,000 diapers in the past three week. In the previous year, the parents’ network distributed 164,000 diapers.

Ernst has introduced legislation with a Democratic colleague to support diaper banks for needy families.

“So that’s something that I can double-down on,” she said. “There are a lot of issues that we can be working on in regard to the next care package.”

The list of needs was long, ranging from USDA Forestry Service strike teams of arborists to small businesses and entrepreneurs to child care resources to addressing climate change.

Repeatedly, Garner and others brought up sustainability.

“All of these agencies were struggling because of pandemic,” Sofia Mehaffey of Horizons said. The need for services had escalated because people are out of work and have lost their incomes.

The impact of COVID-19 has been compounded by the derecho that left people without electricity for a week or more and some still without internet connectivity, added Lisa Gavin of Iowa Legal Aid. That means they’ve lost their ability to work from home, “and they are worried their employers are not going to be patient.”

“The needs have escalated tremendously ... but we are crippled in ability to respond,” Mehaffey said, because many nonprofits have lost their funding because of the pandemic.

What has been missing from the response, said Tamara Marcus of Advocates for Social Justice, is recognition that what the pandemic and derecho has made apparent has been real in underserved communities and communities of color before the current crises.

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She also called on the senators to address climate change that, Marcus said, is the cause of a record number of derechos this year.

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘Why is it that each time we have a disaster or pandemic, the most-vulnerable are the worst impacted, particularly communities of color?’ ” Pino said. “The conditions they were living in before the crises were unacceptable.”

The derecho has created a sense of urgency among the “good, hardworking, blue-collar folks” of Cedar Rapids, Clint Twedt-Ball of Matthew 25 said. “They’re at a breaking point. They have so many expenses, so many things piled on top of them, they don’t know where to turn.”

It leaves people feeling as if Washington has abandoned them, Twedt-Ball said, in encouraging Grassley and Ernst to “find ways to compromise, find ways to come together.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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