Libby Nelson and Chris Coleman "Have the Floor"

Community Leaders respond to Homeless Issues

Libby Nelson and Chris Coleman "Have the Floor"

The Des Moines metropolitan area continues to face a problem with homelessness.  Each winter there is a crescendo of concern that follows media accounts of folks living in tents during subzero weather and shelter services being stretched beyond thin.  Make no mistake, the problem of homelessness in the Des Moines metropolitan area is not seasonal, it is a constant, year-round struggle for those without a place to live and those in the community trying to help them.

This community has taken many compassionate steps to help mitigate the human suffering caused by homelessness.  With community funds from generous donors we recently built a full service shelter in downtown Des Moines that offers a safe, short term place to stay while providing connections to long term services to help its clients.  We support agencies that provide outreach to the homeless, making sure that everything that can be done is.

Many have asked why, with all the resources we have directed toward this issue, do we still have more than 900 people in our community who are without a permanent place to live?  Government funding to address this issue is shrinking dramatically and rapidly.  If we can’t solve the problem today, how will we in the face of scarce resources? The answer will come in part from a new group tasked with this challenge.

Last summer, the Homeless Coordinating Council, made up of leaders from all levels of local governments and the business and philanthropic communities selected a Continuum of Care Board for Polk County.  This Board is responsible for developing a comprehensive, community-wide strategic plan to address homelessness and to direct the community resources to fund that plan. 

The plan’s centerpiece is a “Housing First” philosophy.  The goal is to ensure that folks who are currently homeless or become homeless are quickly connected with safe, stable and permanent housing that they can afford.  It will use a comprehensive centralized intake, assessment and placement system where permanent housing is wrapped by support services, rather than a series of temporary or transitional housing options. This philosophy has served other communities well and has resulted in a quick and sustained reduction in their homeless populations.  In addition, many communities adopting this philosophy have seen a meaningful reduction in the dollars spent per client.

This will not be a quick fix.  Some cities have been working with this model for a decade or more.  But, as the metro grows its Housing First resources, the Continuum of Care Board will carefully monitor the progress and direct funds where they are needed.