CEDAR RAPIDS — A week after the Aug. 10 derecho devastated the city, damaged homes and left residents scrambling to find shelter, Alicia Faust took on her new role at the helm of Willis Dady Homeless Services.
The agency has faced numerous challenges during this transition period. The derecho diminished an already-low supply of affordable housing stock and displaced residents — some temporarily, some permanently. And the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has strained the economy and some residents’ pocketbooks.
Reflecting on the early days of stepping into the executive director role, Faust credits continued success serving clients to teamwork and a collaborative community.
“I think that during those few weeks after the derecho, we all kind of forgot that there was also COVID happening, which is understandable,” Faust said of her early days as the executive director. “A human can only handle usually one traumatic event at a time, so it was definitely an undertaking, but luckily I have a great leadership team and our case managers, everyone would just rally together to continue moving forward.”
Faust worked as a housing support specialist with Friends of the Family in Waverly before she joined Willis Dady in Cedar Rapids as the veteran housing case manager in 2016.
She then served as support services manager developing rapid rehousing programs, a permanent supportive housing initiative and veteran programming beginning 2017 until she became housing programs director in 2019, supervising those programs and identifying new funding sources.
Shelter Services Director Denine Rushing said Faust already was a staple within Willis Dady before taking on her new role, which she noted helped make for a smooth transition.
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“I think that she did a really amazing job stepping into that role and taking things on, especially her making that in the middle of a pandemic and derecho,” Rushing said. “I think she did it with great grace and she just always kept her composure during that transitional time.”
Now four months into her position as executive director, Faust said she is responsible for filling big shoes after the departure of her predecessor, Phoebe Trepp. The former executive director stepped down in June to lead Care Housing, a Minneapolis-based affordable housing and health organization serving people leaving homelessness who have HIV or AIDS.
Under Trepp’s leadership, Willis Dady completed a $3.1 million expansion of its main building to double its square footage and add more beds; grew its overflow shelter operation; and purchased 16 permanent support houses.
Faust’s vision of moving the agency forward involves strengthening current efforts such as expanding employment services and veterans programs, she said, but also “taking new innovative ways to end homelessness in our community.”
The derecho’s hurricane-force winds destroyed the $3 million Willis Dady Works project at the old Chandler Pump Co. building, 707 B Ave. NW, Faust said. The project is intended to be an employment hub and supportive housing complex.
She said Willis Dady staff is working with the construction team to revamp plans to move forward with the program, because the building’s foundation remains structurally sound.
“We’re not one to give up after we’ve committed to something, so even though our site has been devastated, we’re committed to continuing this project,” Faust said.
While juggling the growth efforts amid the challenges of an unprecedented year, Rushing said the agency never closed. And the overflow shelter — which typically operates beginning mid- to late November or Dec. 1 and stays open through March 1 or March 31, depending on the weather — has remained open since November 2019.
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Until June 30, Rushing said, the overflow facility was open 24 hours per day, seven days per week before it transitioned into a day center where clients could meet with staff, get meals and access other services.
“As we see close to a year later, cases are still on the rise,” Rushing said. “And so I’m really happy that we did make that decision because we provided a safe place for our clients to be.”
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