Posted by: mollyrossiter | April 1, 2009

Where will they go?

IOWA CITY — Tuesday was the last night Margo Hernton knew where she and her three children, ages 6 weeks to 7 years, would sleep. She hoped resources through Iowa City’s Shelter House would put her up in a hotel for a few nights until she could move into a HACAP apartment, but she couldn’t be sure.

For two weeks Hernton has been sleeping either at Shelter House or one of its overflow sites. The shelter itself has room for just 29 people and fills up fast, so in the winter months eight Iowa City churches take turns hosting the shelter’s “overflow” for seven nights at a time, providing sleeping space for anywhere from three to 30 members of Iowa City’s homeless community.

The last night of the winter season for the overflow sites was Tuesday. Now the city’s homeless have nowhere to go when Shelter House is full.

“Once we stop doing the overflow the shelter will continue to be turning people away,” said Margaret Kiekhaefer, one of two co-coordinators of the overflow program. “The numbers are the same in the summer as they are in the winter, they just figure they can sleep outside.”

The overflow site program was started in 2004 when the numbers of homeless people seeking shelter became more than Shelter House could handle in its 29-bed building. At the same time, plans for a new building were approved that would provide sleeping areas for 70 people as well as office space for counseling and resource centers.

Those building plans have been tangled in a four-year legal battle that ended in February, said Shelter House Executive Director Crissy Canganelli. The only thing blocking construction now, she said, is money. The non-profit can’t take the risk of a mortgage for the $3.5 million facility, and fundraising efforts, including grant monies, have only raised about $1.85 million.

The overflow sites, which started as a one-year program five years ago, is in flux, as well. Co-coordinators Kiekhaefer and Christine Mullen will both be unavailable next fall, and churches are beginning to feel the weariness that comes with being over-extended.

In the meantime, Iowa City’s homeless keep searching for a place to lay their head at night.

“Anyone can imagine to those people,” Canganelli said. “There’s nowhere for people to go, they hit the street. They sleep in alleys, they’ll sleep in their car if they have one. They’re sleeping in parking ramps and stairwells of parking ramps.”

“There is nowhere for people to go,” she said. “When we turn people away, we can’t fix that.”

Hernton knows the struggles the city faces from another perspective. She and her daughters — Lariah, 7, and Lanirah, 1 — moved to Iowa City with a boyfriend from Chicago. Hernton was pregnant and looking for a better life.

A few weeks after Andre, now 6 weeks, was born, her relationship fell apart. She and her children turned to the streets. She looks for a job and uses the resources available to her during the day, when Lariah is at school.

By late afternoon, the family starts winding down. But Hernton, 25, has hope.

“It won’t always be this way,” she said. “I’ll get a job and we’ll get into a HACAP apartment. We’ll be OK.”

Kiekhaefer has been working with the city’s homeless for more than 20 years. Hernton’s isn’t the first family she’s seen pass through the doors, but it doesn’t really get easier.

“You just try to keep yourself doing what you can,” she said. “You go up and down a lot with your emotions, it’s hard. I think you reach a point where it’s just overwhelming, you realize you can’t do everything.”

She hopes, as does Canganelli, that now that the legal battles that surrounded the new Shelter House building are gone, fundraising can move on and construction can begin.

“Our barrier is not the neighbors or the legal issues,” Canganelli said. “Our barrier now is the funding.”

She said she hopes the community she knows supports Shelter House will turn some of that support into dollars.

“This is really a big project and we’ve been doing everything we can to keep it going,” she said. Donations have come from the architect doing the designs to board members and community members.

“It just needs to be amplified,” she said.



  1. Where will they go? How about back to where they came from? Along with the father(s) of the children. Maybe the writer could relocate there also and take attack that windmill.

  2. I was homeless when I moved, after retiring from the Air Force thirteen years ago, to the town where I currently live. I now own my own home outright and pay taxes on it.

    I am a retired Air Force Master Sergeant and a disabled veteran. I bring tens of thousands of federal dollars, in the form of retired pay and disability compensation, into the local economy wherever I choose to live.

    I assume Pol, and likeminded people, do not want me to move to Iowa City, or nearby areas, because I might be homeless while I am re-establishing roots.

    My wife is from Monticello, Iowa, and I have considered moving there, should I decide to move. (I’ve lived at my current location for the longest period in my life and am feeling the need for new experiences.)

    Based on Pol’s comment, I assume eastern Iowa would be better off without the slight infusion of outside funds into the local economies, in order to avoid the possibility of another (temporarily) homeless family.

  3. Pol,
    Why don’t you leave.We don’t need your way of thinking in Iowa

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