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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 22, 2018

Iowa among lowest homelessness rates nationwide, but advocates say work isn’t done

By Makayla Tendall, The Gazette | Dec 26, 2017

Iowa ranks among the states with lowest rates of individuals facing homelessness, but state officials said they’re working to get more local data and affordable housing.

Each year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) puts out a homeless report to Congress. The report is intended to identify anyone who suffers from homelessness, possible causes and how individuals are being served by local agencies.

For the first time in seven years, the number of Americans facing homelessness increased by about .7 percent because of increases of unsheltered individuals in the nation’s largest cities, according to the report. However, the number of homeless families with children declined by five percent.

In Iowa, nine in every 10,000 people were experiencing homelessness in 2017, a 10.1 percent decrease from 2016, according to the report. About 1,500 individuals and 1,256 families were homeless. In contrast, 34 in every 10,000 people in California were experiencing homelessness, one of the highest rates.

Iowa had the lowest rate — at 3.8 percent — of those experiencing homelessness who were not staying at a shelter. There were also no unsheltered families reported. The state also had 140 unaccompanied and unsheltered youth, the lowest of every state.

But the numbers aren’t surprising to officials at Iowa’s Institute for Community Alliance, which collect and analyze data for homelessness services providers across the state and analyze. On a night in January each year, service providers conduct a point-in-time survey where a group searches the area in an attempt to count the number of sheltered and unsheltered individuals in the community. They send results to the Institute for Community Alliance, which then sends them to HUD.

The best way to understand homelessness in Iowa is to compare parts of the state to each other or to parts of the Midwest, said Ehren Stover-Wright, research director at ICA.

“Comparing Iowa to other states, it’s interesting but it’s not all that likely to impact policy,” he said. “It’s hard to be homeless outside in the winter in Iowa. We just don’t have the same numbers of people as the coast, especially those chronic numbers.”

This year, 32 counties turned in results from a point-in-time survey, and Stover-Wright said ICA is looking to expand involvement for this year’s count on Jan. 31, especially in Iowa’s rural counties.

Homeless individuals in cities are likely to be in a shelter, whereas those in rural areas are doubling-up families in one home or living in cars or abandoned shelters.

“Most of the homeless are the working poor,” Stover-Wright said. “They don’t suffer from disabilities at a higher rate than other individuals. Most can only afford $300 to $400 a month (for housing), and they’re having to put three or four families in a place that’s not designed for that.

And as ICA looks to expand the number of agencies participating in the point-in-time survey, Stover-Wright said they’re continuing to push for more long-term supportive housing in the state.

“The affordable housing stock is so diminished in Iowa,” he said. “Most homeless people are just like every other impoverished person: they’re just experiencing some economic shock.”

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