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In the community

April 17, 2022

Iowa City residents Shane and Jeremy are best friends. Both experienced houselessness for most of their lives. Jeremy was battling an addiction to narcotics, and both friends currently struggle with alcohol abuse. Additionally, both faced tough childhoods — Jeremy’s family members struggled with substance abuse disorder, and Shane encountered a variety of adversity early on.

“[I lived] on the street, off and on all my life — about 40 years. I’m 63 now,” Shane said. “My dad died when I was 6 years old, so I had to raise myself. Then, I had to take care of my mom too. She had a bad heart.”

Things started looking up when Cross Park Place opened in January 2019 and located Shane and Jeremy. The building, brought about by Shelter House, has single apartments and provides housing to individuals experiencing chronic houselessness. Cross Park Place was designed using trauma-informed design principles, including soft colors, warm materials and soothing spaces. 

“Cross Park helped us out. They’re really nice people,” Jeremy said. “They came and picked me up out of the woods.”

Although both friends are glad to have a permanent place to reside, they agree there are some upsides to being houseless.

“Sometimes I like being houseless. It gives me the freedom that I need, the space. A lot of people don’t realize that. Some people like to have their own space,” Shane said.

Shelter House Director of Development and Communications Christine Ralston affirms that many people experiencing houselessness may enjoy it because it allows individualism.

“The thought of losing a freedom when you have very little individual choice, in a world that prides individual choice, [is terrifying],” Ralston said. “[People experiencing houselessness] have a reasonable and justifiable skepticism of structures and institutions because often they fail them continuously.”

Still, there are challenges. Abbey Ferenzi is the Executive Director of GuideLink Center, a 24/7 urgent care facility for people who have mental health or substance use crises that would otherwise be in the emergency room or jail. Based on Ferenzi’s experiences working and a 2020 piece published in Psychiatric Times, being houseless and having a mental health disorder or substance use disorder frequently arise from one another.

“Certainly not everyone who’s homeless has a mental health disorder or substance use disorder, but, in my opinion, from what we see, a lot of people struggling with that are also struggling to stay housed,” Ferenzi said.

Struggling with a substance use disorder himself, Jeremy takes it day-by-day.

“I’m just trying to get by,” Jeremy said. “I’m trying to help myself out. I’m trying to help my brother out too because he’s going to become homeless soon.”

[People think] I am useless. People kind of look down on you because you’re homeless.”

— Michael, person experiencing houselessness

Michael, another Iowa City resident, has been houseless off and on for the past 10 years. Although he is originally from Iowa City, he lived in various places throughout his life. He feels there is a stigma surrounding being houseless. 

[People think] I am useless. People kind of look down on you because you’re homeless,” Michael said.

Recent rises in inflation have only exacerbated troubles. According to University of Iowa economics professor Anne Villamil, pandemic-era shifts in consumer behavior, supply chain issues and U.S. fiscal policies are responsible for inflation. Additionally, the war in Ukraine has increased oil, gas and commodity prices.

Inflation is always more difficult for low-income people. If one has an income of $1,000 and inflation is 10%, this income will only buy $900 worth of goods and services,” Villamil wrote in an email.

Safety is another concern. Dieu Plus Fort is currently battling houselessness and has been using resources provided by Shelter House. 

My experience is not too good, not too bad,” Dieu Plus Fort said. “It’s a place to sleep, you get something to eat. The bad thing is people stealing your stuff. They’re noisy, they’re fighting. I don’t always feel comfortable.”

The anonymous source, a fellow person utilizing Shelter House, does their best to make the environment as welcoming as possible.

“I stay busy cleaning and not complaining. People are from all different walks of life, so some people are bound to make a mess. It makes us look civil for when people come to donate or interview,” the anonymous source said. “When you have cleanliness, you have more order. Plus, Covid makes you more aware and more considerate about cleaning.”

The resources Shelter House provides are beneficial for the anonymous source, and they are on their way to a permanent residence in two weeks, as of press time.

“Shelter House has helped me refresh and refine life skills — being punctual is one. It all follows you through school, to work, to paying bills. Also, giving me the motivation and confidence to stay housed and gainfully employed has been valuable,” they said.

Their experience being houseless has not only taught the anonymous source life skills but life lessons.

“It’s been very enlightening to the conditions that people face. They become creative when it comes to survival,” the anonymous source said. “I feel humbled and more in line with humanity. For example, I’m fully mobile. It makes me appreciate the minute things in life.”

Rickey, having experienced houselessness for six years, however, uses a walker to get around. Even though she must use a walker, Rickey loves to walk to the Iowa City Public Library and watch Marvel movies. Although Rickey does not like being houseless, she feels her identity as a trans woman is more accepted in Iowa City than in Cedar Rapids, her childhood home.

“My childhood was really bad; I was sexually abused by my mom and dad. They didn’t know what they were doing because they were using drugs,” Rickey said. “[People at Shelter House and my doctors] understand me more, understand what I’m going through and call me ‘she.’”

Ultimately, everyone has a different reason for being unhoused. However, there is hope.

“Success stories are possible — they’re highly possible. The resources are in place to get back on the grid. A lot of people come in with barriers. It’s like if you’re running track, with hurdles. These people definitely help you — they help you get over the hurdles no matter how many you have. It works for people that allow it to work,” the anonymous source said.

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