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Housing First Movement Expands in Iowa

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Tuesday, May 25, 2021   

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- One of Iowa's largest cities will soon see another project that centers around the "housing first" philosophy in addressing chronic homelessness.

Next month, Shelter House in Iowa City will break ground on a 36-unit structure to provide long-term housing for those who have frequently moved in and out of shelters while dealing with mental health, behavioral or drug-dependency issues. The organization opened a 24-unit facility in 2019 called Cross Park Place.

Christine Ralston, director of development for Shelter House, said with the exception of one person being asked to leave, most other tenants are still there. They're trying to improve their lives, while not having to worry about their living arrangements.

"It's not transitional, Ralston explained. "It's not meant to say, 'You can stay here for a while and get out.' It is a, 'This is a place for you,' because there aren't a lot of really great options for people who experience chronic homelessness and have multiple, co-occurring behavioral or mental-health disorders."

Ralston noted in one of their case studies, one tenant had health-care costs billed through the University of Iowa care system at more than $211,000 prior to moving in. It was reduced to just under $1,000 a year later.

Skeptics, such as conservative think tanks, contended the approach boosts individuals but not broader homelessness issues around the country.

But Ralston argued their facilities are planned with round-the-clock trained staff who can deal with tenants in a crisis situation. She added immediate care in the person's permanent home is much better than forcing them into various shelters or other facilities if they're on the street.

"Being forced really often makes it a much harder thing to stick with," Ralston pointed out.

She emphasized people approved for these units get care, along with the stable housing, in a consent-style fashion. Supporters of the approach believe it makes them less prone to encounters with authorities, reducing demand on that front.

In Iowa City, tenants are only asked to pay 30% of their monthly income for their rent. A
recent report from the Urban Institute said the broader effort has sharply reduced homelessness among military veterans.


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