Home is integral to the holiday experience.
For many of us, the sights, sounds and smells of our childhood homes define holiday memories. Millions of Americans will travel this week to wherever is home for them. Home is a common theme in our Christmas songs, movies and television specials.
Yes, it is the season to retreat to our home, enjoy the company of loved ones and reflect on the past year. However, it’s a very different experience for those Americans who don’t have a stable place to call home.
More than half a million Americans were considered homeless on a given night, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual estimate published last week. That is known as a point-in-time survey, providing a snapshot of homelessness on a single day during the year. This year’s count represents a modest increase from 2017, although the number is trending downward over a 10-year span.
Here in Iowa, more than 2,700 people were counted as experiencing homelessness in the federal report. Single individuals were the largest group at around 1,700, but analysts also recorded about 1,000 people in families with children and about 200 unaccompanied youth.
Iowa is doing better than some other states. Nationally, about one-third of people in the survey were unsheltered, meaning they were sleeping outside or in other places not suitable for human habitation. In Iowa, though, that rate is just 9 percent, one of the lowest in the country. States with cold weather tended to have the lowest unsheltered rates.
Additionally, while 19 states reported increasing homelessness over the past year, Iowa’s figure dipped slightly from 2017, and has decreased about 9 percent since 2010.
Eastern Iowa communities are taking important steps to address the housing crisis, with an emphasis both on shelter services and on increasing the availability of affordable housing.
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In Cedar Rapids, the Willis Dady Homeless Shelter broke ground last year on a major expansion. The finished project will significantly increase the facility’s space, allowing for more social services programing.
In Iowa City, construction is underway on a new building to provide permanent supportive housing to people who face significant barriers to housing. It’s known as a “Housing First” program, which aims to get clients into stable housing without conditions imposed at traditional shelters, like being sober or participating in other assistance programs.
This board has consistently supported efforts like those, but it is important to understand shelters are not holistic treatments. Homelessness is not just the lack of a place to sleep each night. It is the product of a tangled web of circumstances.
Poverty and housing expenses are a couple of the obvious factors, but there’s also mental health, substance abuse, transportation, child care, family status, domestic violence and many others. Housing often is a necessary first step in addressing those other problems, but that alone will not automatically make individuals and families healthy.
Too often, the conversation over homelessness does not include the thousands of Iowans on the verge of losing their homes. Across the state, 40 percent of all renters are considered cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Some of those families may be just one unexpected bill or a missed paycheck away from being homeless.
Jobs and wages are a clear part of the problem. There is no county in Iowa where a person working full-time at minimum wage — which hasn’t increased in a decade — can afford a efficiency apartment.
To promote true community health, though, Iowa will need to refocus on all of those other issues linked to housing insecurity. In a state with a strong economy and a compassionate populace, there’s no good reason for anyone to be without a home during the holidays — or any other time of the year.
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