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Community actions

April 17, 2022

Students in the ICCSD have been doing what they can to help people experiencing houselessness. Since last summer, Ana Nester ’22 has volunteered for Houses into Homes, a non-profit organization that delivers furniture and household items to families exiting houselessness in Johnson County. Through her volunteer experience, Nester says she has gained a new perspective. 

“In our community, there’s a lot more need than I would have ever thought,” Nester said. “There was one time we brought a bed, and this kid was so excited. He was jumping up and down, and he’s like, ‘That’s the bed I’m going to sleep in tonight.’ I was really happy, but at the same time, it’s heartbreaking to know these kids don’t have a bed to sleep in every night, and that’s what they’re excited about when [for] a lot of people, that’s just a given.”

West High classes, such as the Seal of Biliteracy courses, have encouraged students to use their skills to give back. 

It’s heartbreaking to know these kids don’t have a bed to sleep in every night, and that’s what they’re excited about when [for] a lot of people, that’s just a given.”

— Ana Nester '22, volunteer

“Me and my classmates, we went to CommUnity, which is a food pantry. We crafted this script in French to help shoppers at CommUnity that don’t speak English be able to know what to do when they go in the building and know how to shop there and all the rules,” said Alice Doresca ’23, a French Seal of Biliteracy student.

To help shoppers, CommUnity turned the script into an informational video, producing it in French and Spanish.

“It made me feel good to know I was doing something good to give back to our community, because none of the volunteers at the food pantry speak any other language except English. [We were] able to help these people actually understand what to do when they walk in the building,” Doresca said.

The CommUnity Food Bank and other local food banks are helpful places to get food when on the verge of houselessness, currently houseless or in Shelter House’s permanent housing. Otherwise, Shelter House provides breakfast and dinner, and the Iowa City Free Lunch Program provides free lunch without requiring identification or an address.

In the larger community, Iowa City South District Neighborhood Association President Angie Jordan works to connect residents to resources they need. For individuals who are unhoused, this may be food banks or programs like Shelter House. Another central goal is connecting residents — in other words, community-building.

People realizing what’s in their own backyard, what they have access to — that always makes me feel good because that connection and attachment, at least for me, really makes me feel like I’m home. And when I’m home, I’m comfortable,” Jordan said.

Jordan keeps this philosophy in mind in both her volunteer work and position as Founder and Director of Banjo Knits Empowerment LLC. Her business provides many services, including but not limited to event planning and restorative justice practices used to repair relationships between victims and offenders.

“I think we oftentimes will forget that the fun that we try to create and the joy we try to create is for everyone, whether you have a home or not,” Jordan said.

Iowa Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls ’09 has been interested in helping individuals experiencing houselessness ever since he was a child in downtown Iowa City. In the many years since, Wahls’ involvement in this issue has only grown.

“It started off as a childhood question of, ‘Why is this happening? It doesn’t seem fair,’” Wahls said. “[It] grew in high school, and then in college, into a better understanding of the broader structural issues around this topic.”

When Wahls was in graduate school, he learned about an approach to addressing houselessness called Housing First. The Housing First method, which is used extensively by Shelter House, approaches houselessness differently than traditional methods.

Historically, housing was only provided to individuals experiencing houselessness who completed a series of steps, including accepting needed treatment and being sober. The Housing First method switches up the order in which individuals experiencing houselessness receive housing — a person experiencing houselessness is first given a home and then, they can decide if they want to receive treatment or become sober, or both. Through Housing First, no lengthy steps are needed for someone who is houseless to finally have a roof over their head.

Wahls has been working to combat houselessness in Iowa through his leadership in Iowa government since his first speech in the Iowa Legislature, where he focused on an encounter he had with a man experiencing houselessness in Des Moines while it was negative 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We were able to get some legislation passed that has more than doubled our state’s investment into the kinds of projects that help make sure that people like him have the help they need from our state,” Wahls said. “We got a lot more work to do; it’s just a step in the right direction.”

However, not all actions in the community are positive. Gentrification is the process of turning a community with formerly low housing prices into a wealthy area and, in turn, displacing the former residents. 

“Sometimes, yes, it’s better to fix [properties] up and have them be better for people in the community. But not to the point where they’re priced out of housing,” Ralston said.

Anne Russett is the Senior Planner for Iowa City. She leads her team in making decisions about long-range and current city planning. Long-range city planning includes the creation of a comprehensive plan for the growth of the city that covers topics such as land use, transportation, environmental resources and more — all based on community input. Conversely, current city planning involves screening land use development applications, such as add-ons to already existing properties.

Russett has not noticed any large-scale patterns of gentrification in Iowa City. For example, although there was a rezoning of a former mobile home park, she mentioned that the city provided resources.

“The city was really worried about the displacement of those residents. We will require as part of that rezoning that individuals get relocation assistance, financial and support services and [are able to] work with Shelter House in particular to find a new home,” Russett said. “[This is] not to say that there hasn’t been any displacement of individuals from their residences; it may be occurring. What I’m not seeing though is residential neighborhoods completely redeveloping and resulting in displacement.”

The city minimizes gentrification by being self-aware and putting preemptive measures in place. The city planning team has a group dedicated to allocating funds for affordable housing. Russett advocates for a diversity of housing types and feels, for a city with 80% of residential land being used for single family homes, this is a step in the right direction.

“Single-family homes cost more. Not everyone can afford a single-family home. Not everyone wants a single-family home,” Russett said. “We went through a process recently where we created new zoning regulations that require a mix of housing types per block. So, as we’re thinking about housing diversity and encouraging housing diversity, we’re trying to provide some flexibility in our code.”

If you’re in our physical boundaries of our neighborhood, you’re home.”

— Angie Jordan, South District Neighborhood President

Besides potential gentrification, some activists have been concerned about anti-houseless architecture. Cities across the country have implemented these changes, from slanted bus benches to spikes on flat spaces that prevent people experiencing houselessness from sleeping there. Iowa City installed new benches with armrests in 2018. Later, the city council replaced 20% of the benches with benches without armrests, and donated an additional $10,000 to Shelter House.

Nobody’s wrong for getting riled up about people’s comfort and accessibility in the community,” Ralston said, regarding concerns about anti-houseless architecture. “It’s not wrong to ask those questions as long as they don’t lose sight of [the central goal that] I don’t want my community to have to sleep on benches. I want to be able to connect them to a home they can afford, they can stay in and that they’ll have support in.”

Overall, Jordan believes houselessness should never define an individual.

“When you see someone who’s houseless, whether you realize it or not, that really doesn’t and shouldn’t, in my opinion, matter: if you’re in our physical boundaries of our neighborhood, you’re home,” Jordan said. “Those parks, those benches, those bus stops, the playground, the sidewalk, they should all be clean and shoveled and accessible for everyone who is home here.”

Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel has a similar perspective on how people should view houselessness.

“Being homeless isn’t a crime and neither is having a mental illness,” Kunkel said.

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