From Hardship to Hope

Annual event celebrates those who have overcome homelessness

From Hardship to Hope

The Polk County Housing Trust Fund was proud to sponsor the fifth annual Opening Doors Awards Ceremony on November 19 at the Des Moines Downtown Marriott. Opening Doors: Celebrating Stories of Homelessness to Hope is a fundraiser luncheon that recognizes the outstanding achievements of formerly homeless men and women who have overcome significant barriers to find stable homes and achieve their goals. Proceeds from the event support the R. Dean Wright Housing Fund, a fund set up to help other homeless individuals follow in the award winners’ footsteps.

In Des Moines, in 2013, 4340 people were served by emergency shelters, transitional housing programs or street outreach services. 775 of the people experiencing homelessness were children and 495 self identified as veterans. Additionally, 770 people were housed in permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless Iowans trying to establish long term stability, including 260 children. 

Many people who experience homelessness are unable to work as a result of long term disabilities (59% of Adults) including mental health and substance dependency. 77% of clients exit programs with no earned income, and for those who can work, the average income is less than 15% of the median income in Des Moines. Facing such overwhelming obstacles, it is truly inspirational when people experiencing such hardship find long-term stability. Read the incredible stories of the five Opening Doors award winners below.

Family Award: Melissa Moon (Nominated by Tiffany King, Anawim)

Melissa began using meth at age 15, leading to homelessness and domestic violence, and having parental rights to her first child terminated. In January, Melissa will celebrate three years clean and sober. After graduating from the House of Mercy program Melissa and her five-year old daughter Madeline have a home of their own through Anawim Housing’s Shelter Plus Care Program. Melissa continues as an active member of a recovery support program, has participated in Dress for Success’s Going Places Network, and has been employed at the same bookstore for over a year. She has developed positive parenting skills and provides a loving home for her daughter. Melissa shares her inspiring stories in the community, speaking on addiction with high school students and others.

Single Adult Award: Dan Mundt (Nominated by Drew Kaufman, YMCA)

Dan Mundt for many years moved from one couch to another and was in and out of hospitals for medical challenges, including a point at which he “gave up hope.” In fall 2013, Dan obtained a permanent home at the YMCA Supportive Housing Campus. Since obtaining stable housing, he has started working on a degree at ISU. He works as a trainer at another branch of the Y. He provides service to his home YMCA and has become a volunteer with Polk County Conservation.

Veteran Award: Thomas Beil (Nominated by Tobi Simmons, YMCA)

In the past Thomas Beil made many unhealthy choices, resulting in a time of homelessness, living in a shed with no heat or running water. He went door to door to earn money doing lawn care. Waking up one day and deciding his life had more meaning than this, he reached out to the VA and was placed in the Grant Per Diem Program. He joined a program through the Evelyn K. Davis Center to become more employable, and is now attending DMACC for certification in Maintenance, and he recently accepted a maintenance position. Thomas frequently volunteers to cook, clean, or do lawn service at homeless shelters. He plays the saxophone in coffee shops and recently has reached out to the community by doing an interview with WHO about how the Des Moines community resources have helped him get where he is today.

Youth Award: Justin Ahlberg (Nominated by Amalia Riordan, Iowa Homeless Youth Centers)

Having been recently released from jail and on probation, no longer enrolled in high school and experiencing homelessness, Justin Ahlberg came to the Buchanan Transitional Living Program. While in the program Justin earned his HiSET (high school equivalency diploma) and he has maintained employment at Subway, The Continental, and Wells Fargo Iowa Events Center. Using his earnings he has paid off all of his probation and court fines, and purchased a car. After completing the Buchanan Program, he has moved to his own home. Justin has volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House, Night Eyes at the Blank Park Zoo, at RAGBRAI and has shared his life experience at a local poverty simulation.

Compelling Life Story Award: Decontee Manyango (Nominated by Kate Polush, Iowa Homeless Youth Centers)

At age seven, Decontee came with her dad as a refugee from Liberia. Her mother arrived soon after and sought and obtained custody when Decontee was 12. While working toward her high school diploma, Decontee found she was pregnant and was kicked out of her home. After time at New Directions Shelter she moved to the Lighthouse Transitional Living Program where she currently resides with her son. She completed high school at Scavo in May 2014. Since then she completed a Goodwill training program, then enrolled in Patient Registration classes at DMACC and is working at Goodwill. Decontee is working toward citizenship, has saved about $3,000 since moving to the Lighthouse and has goals of finishing her training, buying a car, and eventually moving to her own apartment.