What you should know about homelessness in central Iowa during the pandemic

Oct 26, 2020

The pandemic has highlighted significant challenges for individuals and families who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness: Social distancing isn’t possible when you don’t have a home. Access to supports are nearly impossible especially without reliable wifi. Consistent, quality education is unavailable without a consistent place to learn and the ability to connect online.

Having a safe and stable home is the foundation to one’s ability to thrive, especially in today’s pandemic, and it’s critical to a child’s healthy development. Yet about 5,100 individuals are served in Polk County's homeless system each year and advocates working to address homelessness expect those numbers to increase.

More than ever, we have seen how everyone’s health is intertwined. To support families in overcoming tremendous difficulties and maintaining their well-being, we must more deeply understand what is happening, so we can think creatively and collaboratively about how to respond. HealthConnect Fellow Angie Arthur, executive director of Polk County Continuum of Care, shares these four things you should know about homelessness in Central Iowa right now.

1. Connections to support systems are less available.

In the past school year, districts identified significantly less families who are homeless or are at risk of homelessness than the previous year as schools let out in mid-March. Places where families and youth would go for safety and support during the day—schools, libraries, nonprofit centers, etc.—are closed, only partially opened, or by appointment only. This makes it especially difficult for families to access the internet to connect with others or to fill out applications for assistance, seek telehealth services for health and mental health needs, and identify other supports in the community that can help them.

2. Evictions are continuing to rise, likely leading to an increase in homelessness.

A moratorium that paused evictions, utility shutoffs, and foreclosures was lifted this summer at a time when many Iowans were still unemployed or under-employed and could not afford to cover payments missed over the past few months. Another federal moratorium is in place, but families have to know about it and opt into it, and navigating this process can be confusing. A state program meant to assist with rent isn't easily accessible for all applicants and requires access to a computer and several types of documentation, which are additional barriers. Polk County Continuum of Care has created flyers in several languages to educate tenants on their rights, but many tenants need legal support that they cannot afford.

3. Evictions point to a greater strain in Iowa’s economy.

The rise of evictions show vulnerability in the types of jobs Iowa offers. Many homeless individuals work in the hospitality and service industry that has been especially hit by the pandemic. Not only will these jobs be difficult to find any time soon, but they also pay lower wages. Meanwhile, Central Iowa lacks housing that’s affordable for people in lower-wage jobs, creating a strain on families who are trying to cover their rent and all of their basic needs.

4. Homelessness highlights inequities created by our systems.

Homelessness is a sign that systems have failed to protect and support individuals before arriving to this crisis. Black Iowans make up 7 percent of Polk County’s population but represent about 30 percent of its homeless population. This stems from several issues, including the fact that Black Iowans are arrested at higher rates with longer sentences than White Iowans and then struggle to secure a good-paying job and housing when they are released from prison. Black Iowans are also shut out of economic opportunities that would help them earn higher wages and build wealth.

Responding through partnerships

Partnerships are forming across systems to respond to this housing crisis, including the Polk County Disaster Recovery partnership that is looking at the basic needs residents have right now and how to respond. A collaboration between staff from Iowa Legal Aid and the Polk County Housing Trust Fund is bringing together tenants and landlords just before eviction hearings. These kinds of collaborative efforts need to continue outside of times of crisis to be integrated into how the community responds long-term to this issue, says Angie.

Polk County Continuum of Care continues to collaborate with stakeholders to work through these challenges and to provide information and connection to resources for those who need it. Learn more about their efforts and find resources to prevent evictions at www.polkcares.org.

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