COVID-19 health crisis puts 'unprecedented burden' on homeless shelters

Shelters band with city and county leaders to find solutions

Tim Yuengel of Cedar Rapids (right) helps his wife, Denise, pick up her things as she reluctantly prepares to leave her
Tim Yuengel of Cedar Rapids (right) helps his wife, Denise, pick up her things as she reluctantly prepares to leave her husband of 14 years behind at the Fillmore Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, March 19, 2020. In an effort to better care for the area’s homeless population amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 virus, women were moved to another facility. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

One of the most vulnerable populations in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City is the homeless, and local shelters, social service agencies and city and county leaders are providing places homeless people can stay during the day now that public libraries and other daytime gathering spots are closed.

The challenges are significant and, one shelter manager said, “frustrating.”

In Iowa City, Crissy Canganelli, executive director of Shelter House, said it is “frustrating” more attention hasn’t been paid to the homeless situation because the population is a high-risk group and has chronic health issues.

The public health crisis is an “unprecedented burden and unfair risk” to place on the shoulders of homeless shelters, she said.

“Our beds aren’t 6 feet apart, and they cannot self-isolate — they don’t have homes,” Canganelli said.

Iowa City’s winter overflow homeless shelter closed Monday, and Shelter House is now housing 80 people in its regular 70-bed shelter, using the lobby for overflow. As in Cedar Rapids, the shelter is now staying open during the day.

Many of Shelter House’s part-time employees are University of Iowa students, who aren’t coming back from spring break now that UI classes have switched to online only, Canganelli said.

And many of the shelter’s volunteers have had to stop coming because they are older and are in the high-risk age group for the coronavirus.

“We don’t want to become a hot spot,” Canganelli said. “This is a challenging situation. We are trying to meet the needs but doing everything possible to keep our staff safe.”

The shelter, she said, is working with other social service agencies and the city and county to find solutions for temporary and eventually longer-term housing for the homeless.


In Cedar Rapids, the winter overflow homeless shelter, scheduled to close March 30, is staying open beyond that and also during the day.

Around 75 people are staying at the overflow shelter in the Fillmore Building in northwest Cedar Rapids, according to Marcy Oates, operations manager for Willis Dady Homeless Services.

The shelter is dealing with fewer volunteers, too, because many of the regulars are older and staying home.

“We desperately need volunteers and are now hiring short-term resident assistants to work in the overflow shelter,” Oates said.

Those resident assistants — who will be hired as soon as possible — will work two or three shifts per week — 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. The jobs will last through the health crisis.

Oates said churches, Greene Square and other organizations have provided food during the day, but the shelter needs prepackaged foods like beef jerky and nuts and supplies like hand sanitizer and paper towels. Any home-cooked food that can be served safely to residents also is welcomed.

The overflow shelter is regularly cleaned throughout the day, she said, to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and staffers are doing their best to encourage social distancing.

They also are trying to keep the cots about 3 feet apart.

Masks are available for anyone experiencing symptoms, and the building has an isolation room if needed, she said.

Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said he and other county officials were immediately concerned about the homeless when the Cedar Rapids Public Library closed.

Walker said the city and county have agreed to split the costs of keeping the Fillmore Building open — about $1,000 a day — and Willis Dady Homeless Services will staff it, possibly with help from city and county employees.

Officials also are looking at other ways to help keep the homeless population safe during the health crisis.

Walker said he didn’t want anyone in that vulnerable population “to think they don’t have a place to go. We want to be a resource and for them to know we’re going to be here for them.”


Anyone interested in volunteering or making food and financial donations can contact Willis Dady at (319) 362-7555 and the Shelter House at (319) 351-0326.

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