Drugs, alcohol and mental illness are leading factors in what makes Iowa City’s homeless issue so visible to the public, said Ryan Turner, a former homeless resident still living in Iowa City.
The city’s only homeless shelter, Shelter House, does not allow people who have been abusing substances to stay at the facility, which is one reason why many people choose to live on the streets.
“There are those who have drug and alcohol issues that don’t really want to go to Shelter House,” said Tom Markus, city manager.
The 70-bed Shelter House, 429 Southgate Ave., typically runs at capacity. Guests often are turned away or placed on a waiting list because the facility cannot handle the demand, executive director Crissy Canganelli said.
Johnson County ranks fifth out of Iowa’s six largest counties in the percentage of residents that are homeless, according to a recent study provided by the city.
The visibility of homelessness though is much more significant in downtown Iowa City because of the appeal of public gathering places like the ped mall.
“Public places are designed to encourage the public, regardless of residential status, to enjoy those spaces,” Markus said.
Turner said the city also is a very attractive place for transients because of the numerous free-meal programs, hospitals and county resources.
“There is a big homeless community, and it’s getting bigger,” Turner said. “They come down here seeking the resources Iowa City has to offer.”
Turner, a Muscatine area native, came to Iowa City in 2011 after being released from prison for drug-related issues. After an extended stay at Shelter House, he started a job as a painter and moved into his own apartment.
“If you take advantage of the opportunities, you can do well,” he said. “But many of these guys can’t. They’re drinking alcohol and using drugs for a reason.”
Police are tasked with keeping an eye on the homeless community living on the streets during the overnight hours. Officers also have been given orders by the city to keep transients out of parking garages and other spaces where they’ve received complaints from the public.
“The community provides really good food, and you can find clothes, but there’s really no place for these guys to hang out at night,” said Lt. Mike Brotherton, who heads the overnight patrols. Police frequently respond to complaints of petty theft and car break-ins, which often are linked to transients.
Transients can be found setting up camp all throughout the city on some of the seasons coldest nights. In late January, a KCRG/Gazette investigation found people spending the night at the downtown post office, on a bench on the ped mall and inside a local gas station. There also was evidence of a homeless camp underneath the Summit Street bridge, about a mile from downtown. The camp included tents, tarps and a pile of human feces.
“They’re living outside during this harsh winter,” said Canganelli. “It’s a harsh reality.”
On the same night, at least one man was transported to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics complaining of frostbite. If an individual is not insured, the hospital will assume the costs for the stay of the person, which can be a factor in rising medical costs on all individuals, hospital spokesman Tom Moore said.
Marcus said the city council is expected to address the issue of homelessness at an upcoming meeting. At least one person has reached out to the city to inquire about an overflow shelter, according to city records.
“That would be a good deal if someone would take that on and try to organize an overflow shelter,” said Brotherton. “That would help a lot.”