Angie Arthur Has the Floor

Homelessness Challenges, Wins, and Resources During Pandemic

Angie Arthur Has the Floor

In managing a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, our homelessness system has been tested like never before. In a conversation with Angie Arthur, Executive Director of the Polk County Continuum of Care (PCCoC), we discussed the extent to which these unprecedented challenges have impacted the structure and capacity of this system in our community and displayed its inspiring responsiveness and resiliency.

How has your work changed throughout this year?

While 2020 has been unusual, we’ve been working hard to find creative solutions for events, meetings, and services that normally happen in person. Working remotely has been a challenge for us all, and PCCoC has learned how to work remotely and to work with our partnering organizations that are also remote. Some services, such as programs that provide shelter, must continue to work in person and have adjusted their procedures and protocols to incorporate physical distancing and personal protective equipment

A great example of an adjustment due to the pandemic is our bi-annual Point-in-Time count, which is a count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. The count is taken over a 24-hour period. For the first time in our count, we had to complete it without volunteers. To do this, we worked in teams of two staff members and ensured that everyone had personal protective equipment.

The Point-in-Time count provides Polk County a snapshot of our community members who are homeless. As we perform this count the same time every year , it allows us to review demographic information and trend the numbers of the homeless people being helped in our community. We feel the outreach during the Point in Time is so important that our Continuum also performs a summer count of people who are unsheltered. The counts provide an opportunity to connect with our unsheltered community members as well as educate them on local resources. It’s essential that this count is completed and while the process looked a bit different this year, we’re happy to have adjusted so quickly to have it completed.

How has the shelter system been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

We’ve supported shelters as they have adjusted their procedures and protocols to incorporate physical distancing, and that process varies by shelter. With our larger shelters that have congregate settings, they’ve had to put in extra effort to ensure the safety of residents. Due to social distancing practices, there is simply not as much availability in those larger settings. Polk County and the City of Des Moines provided financial support to use hotels to help alleviate crowding and serve residents that were at high risk. Shelters and service providers have also grappled with having the appropriate level of Personal Protective Equipment for staff and residents. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was difficult to secure that equipment in a timely manner and some services were not able to continue.

In addition to protecting staff, it has also been important to protect volunteers. In most cases, safety meant to limit nearly all-volunteer involvement, forcing organizations that rely on volunteers to find alternative ways to get things done.

Have there been changes in funding and programming?

Yes, we’ve been learning how to best organize new streams of funding. For example, we’ve been working on getting money from the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) out the door in a way that has the best possible impact. As a result of the CARES Act passed in the Spring, the City of Des Moines received $3.3 million in addition to the $800,000 allocated to the State of Iowa in the first round of funding.

We were very fortunate to have a significant amount of resources come in at the beginning of the pandemic through private community sources (PCHTF, MidIowa Health Foundation, Disaster Response Funding, Wells Fargo Foundation) to help get people rapidly housed. Because of this swift funding, we’ve had some substantial wins. For example, at one point our local domestic violence shelter was able to house all but one household.

Regarding programming, we’re very proud to have moved forward with our Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. Many other communities have had to put similar programs on hold. It’s so important to have the capacity to move that work forward, and to get that money to help our homeless youth.

Our community is finding ways to ensure that full services continue despite unprecedented obstacles.

How has the need in our community changed?

At the beginning of the pandemic, whether it was because of the eviction moratorium or doubling up, people had the resources to stay in place. We actually saw a decrease in families who were entering the shelter system. There was a general concern about what was happening in situations where domestic violence was happening, because a lot of the services or abilities to identify such situations just weren’t there.

Given the length of time the pandemic has been with us and its continued impact, the needs of our community are expected to grow well beyond what we are experiencing at this time. Specifically, with eviction moratoriums ending, we’re starting to see more people entering the homelessness system through our centralized intake. The need has expanded to include other individuals and families that have had stable housing prior to COVID-19, but due to unemployment, childcare issues, and other new challenges are now concerned about being homeless for the first time.

I noticed an increase in our July report in the number of families on our waiting list. For example, HOME Inc., through their rental assistance programs, is getting a significant number of calls for assistance. IMPACT has already spent over $1 million in rental assistance programs in just June and July for Polk County renters . They recently ran out of funds, as they’ve seen a substantial increase in requests.

What resources are available for people in need of assistance?

There are multiple options. The program that’s available to Iowans across the state is the Iowa COVID-19 rental and mortgage assistance program. That uses funding from the CARES act, through the discretion of the governor. There is a $3,200 limit for rent and $3,600 for mortgage per household. You can find more information and apply online at: https://www.iowafinance.com/covid-19-iowa-eviction-and-foreclosure-prevention-program/

There are also options for residents of the City of West Des Moines as well as the City of Des Moines. The CIty of West Des Moines has a rental assistance program for residents, based on income and need. You can find more information at https://www.wdm.iowa.gov/government/human-services/programs-services/emergency-assistance.

Another option is through HOME Inc., to administer an Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) through the City of Des Moines. In order to receive these funds, you must be living in Des Moines and make less than 50% of Area Median Income . If you meet this qualification, you will then go through an assessment with HOME Inc.

HOME Inc. also administers an ESG that is available to all Polk County Residents. You can get in touch with HOME Inc. by calling 515-243-1277 or visiting https://www.homeincdsm.org/about/contact/

If you are in need of assistance, the statewide program is the best place to start. That is the greatest resource with the greatest amount of funding.

Are there any additional issues of concern in the coming months?

It all depends on how long this pandemic and resulting economic slowdown lasts. The greatest concern is that additional funding will only carry us through the end of the year, but the need will continue on. Simply put, we’re worried that the need is going to far outlast the availability of funds.

Another concern is that people won’t know where to turn for help. If someone is homeless and needs assistance, they should contact Centralized Intake (515-248-1850). If they are trying to stay in their home, then they should contact HOME Inc (515-243-1277). In general, our community has been very collaborative in joining forces to best serve our most vulnerable populations. We are fortunate to live in a community that has the ability to do this, and for that I am especially grateful. Again, if you know someone that is in need, please encourage them to reach out and utilize these resources.

The pandemic has made a challenging situation even more challenging, but between special funding and a deep commitment to caring for those who live in our community - we can and will make a difference.

The Polk County Continuum of Care is an independent nonprofit org that is focused on working in partnership to create our community response to homelessness. Focused on helping administer HUD funding and creating community strategies with the goal of ending homelessness. Understanding that if there is homelessness, we want it to be brief, rare, and one time.