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August 9, 2012
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Seeking shelter

New facility slated to open next month to serve homeless

By Marci Clark

Sitting in a torn chair in the conference room of Central Iowa Shelter and Services in Des Moines, Army veteran Mark Schuler, 32, fidgets uncontrollably. His head moves from side to side; he rubs his hands constantly. The movements are a byproduct of years of drug abuse.

Schuler knows the path that led him to the shelter.

He said it’s from when he served in the Army (from 1998-2002) and started using drugs. “Work hard, party hard,” Schuler said. “That’s the Army philosophy.”

Once he was released, he started hanging around with “the wrong people” and his drug abuse continued. “The next thing you know, you’re in jail, and you got nothing but time on your hands,” Schuler said. “It gives you a chance to reevaluate your life.”

Schuler spent three months locked up. He said it was the time he needed to realize that if he continued down this road, he would live his life in jail.

Schuler knows the path that led him to the shelter. He also knows the shelter is the best place for him to be right now. He’s been clean for nearly six months, but he can’t go home.

“There’s too many triggers there to relapse into the drug world again,” he said.

Central Iowa Shelter and Services was built in 1994 at 250 15th St. downtown. It currently offers 94 beds to homeless men and women, while more than 5,000 people are homeless in the city, according to 2010 statistics. Photo by Amber Williams

Schuler is only one of the homeless people who have been taken in and impacted by the shelter. Thousands have come and gone over the years, searching for a safe haven as they get back on their feet. That is just a small fraction of the homeless population in Iowa, and the constant influx of people has taken its toll on the shelter.

A study released in 2010 by The Iowa Institute for Community Alliances reports the number of homeless in Iowa is more than 23,000. In Des Moines, about 5,100 people are homeless, according to Central Iowa Shelter and Services. About 450 of those are veterans like Schuler. With only 2,300 shelter beds available, Des Moines’ homeless are in dire need of more shelters like this one.

It was in 1991 when five people froze to death on the streets of Des Moines (supposedly because they had been rejected by other shelters for showing up under the influence of drugs or alcohol), that Central Iowa Shelter and Services was created, according to executive director of the shelter, Tony Timm.

“Eight churches came together and said, ‘We’re going to provide shelter for everybody regardless of the choices they made during the day,’ ” Timm said.

Every night, the churches would alternate setting up cots and offering meals to the homeless, until the current facility was built in 1994.

“The reality is, by the time they end up here, the next step is a camp along the river. No one wants to end up there,” Timm said.

Jason Gross, CISS board member, adds, “We all have our stereotypes of what a homeless person is, but you don’t have to spend much time here to realize that, yes, there are those that meet that stereotype, but there are also a whole lot of people just living paycheck to paycheck and are just one check away from not knowing where they are going to spend the night.”

Army veteran Mark Schuler, 32, is one of thousands of residents who have sought help from Central Iowa Shelter and Services. He found it to be a safe haven from drug addiction and jail. Photo by Marci Clark

The current shelter has 94 beds, divided between men and women. The shelter is not open to families with children because of its policy to take “everybody under any influence,” according to Gross. “We recognize there is an element of concern with who we are working with.”

The dorms, segregated by sex, are lined with bunk beds, reminiscent of a sleepaway camp. The shelter also has an overflow room lined with chairs that fills up regularly with people who have nowhere else to go.

“Each time I walk in here, it reminds me why I and all of our volunteers come here,” Gross said. “This is not where I can imagine spending a night.”

Fourteen beds, which come with a small bedroom, are reserved for veterans. If they meet certain qualifications, veterans can get a two-year stay at the shelter, but it is required that they stay clean and sober the entire time. They also must be working and saving 50 percent of their income so that at the end of their stay, they can provide themselves with a home.

“This is a transitional program,” Timm said.

But according to Gross, the entire shelter is a transitional program. He said one way the shelter keeps operation costs down is by having clients work at the shelter during the day. That way they learn the skills needed to hold down a job when they leave the shelter, Gross said.

“For those that have struggled to maintain a job, it starts with the basics,” Gross said. “Showing up, taking directions, following through on the task that was assigned.”

Along with housing those in need of shelter, Central Iowa Shelter and Services extends a hand to other community needs. Its conference room hosts a variety of weekly events including Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, healthcare clinics and GED (General Education Degree) classes.

“As we try to build more and more partnerships in the community with other organizations to provide services on site, this is the one room we have to do it all from,” Timm said. “So it constantly transforms.”

The new Central Iowa Shelter and Services $15 million building will open in mid-September at 1420 Mulberry St. Executive director of the shelter, Tony Timm, stands along the outer wall at the unfinished entrance. The new shelter will offer more space and resources to clients. Photo by Amber Williams

The room is lined with handmade shelves (boards nailed together) that are stocked with totes full of trial-sized shampoos and soaps. Extra pillows and blankets are shoved onto higher levels as well as cleaning supplies.

“We rely so much on donations, so when somebody says, ‘I’ve got 500 pairs of socks,’ we can’t say ‘no thanks,’ because tomorrow there may be no socks coming in and we need them,” Timm said. “It’s always a game of storage until we can get them out to the clients.”

The next wall is lined with eight file cabinets crammed with informative materials to help the guests of the shelter. There are also two make-shift cubicles where counselors assist clients with filling out paperwork, applying for jobs and any other online service they may need.

Another wall is lined with computers also used for online job applications and educational courses.

Squeezed into the middle of the room, is a long, scratched and dented table where clients meet with their case workers. Clients are allowed 90 initial days at the shelter. During that time, they are assigned a case manager who assures they are following a path to get them out with a productive plan.

“If you’re addressing the issues in which led you here, such as enrolled in a substance abuse program or completing an education, you can get extensions to stay longer,” Timm said.

Timm amends that stipulation for clients with mental illness, because the shelter will accommodate those clients for up to a year or until a more permanent solution can be found.

According to Timm, the shelter sees 1,200 – 1,500 clients per year. He breaks it down into thirds: one-third being domestic violence victims, another suffering from mental illness and one-third are substance abusers. Often, it is a combination of the three, he said.

With that breakdown of clientele, concerns of violence are understandable. That’s why clients are patted down for weapons every night before entering the facility. However, Timm says in the nearly four years he has worked at the shelter, the police have only been called twice due to security concerns.

Upon entering the facility, clients are met with a wall of signs letting them know there are rules which, if broken, could result in being dismissed from the center for up to two days. Dismissal could be a major setback for some clients because along with beds, clothing and personal care items, the shelter also provides much-needed meals.

The shelter also reaches beyond its in-shelter clients to offer community meal sites through the Community Kitchen Program, and Timm said they are seeing an increase in people and families who are seeking this type of assistance. They send approximately 8,000 meals a month into the community, a number that has risen by about 2,000 per month over the last year, according to Timm.

“Food assistance isn’t going as far, rent has gone up, utilities have gone up, gas has gone up,” Timm said. “So people can’t stretch what limited income they had to feed the family anymore.”

Between the Community Kitchen meals served throughout the community and the meals served on-site, approximately, 180,000 meals were made in the small shelter kitchen last year.

“This facility has served its purpose, but it was built at a level of construction not for the use of 1,200 clients a year, every year,” Gross said. “We’re putting Band-Aids on Band-Aids with bigger Band-Aids.”

So, a new shelter is being built across the street from their current downtown location at 1420 Mulberry Street. Funded almost entirely by donations and sponsorships, CISS has raised nearly $14 million with approximately $1 million to go, according to Gross.
Timm, Gross and the rest of the board recognize the new, larger building will come with new and larger expenses. The shelter that depends on corporate donations and grants is now relying on the public and faith-based institutions to assist in keeping the shelter open. They hold annual events such as Zombie Walks and Hoops for Shelter to help raise money and awareness.

The new facility, which Timm and Gross are hoping will open in mid-September, will have:

A commercial-sized kitchen with a dishwasher, which will cut down on the shelter’s dependence on paper products;

More environmentally-friendly functions, including a geothermal heating system, which will help reduce utility costs;

Offices for caseworkers and clients, rather than the cubicles in the corner of the conference room that are used now. One room will be dedicated to educational programs, job searches and community meetings;

Larger laundry rooms, dorm rooms and shower stalls. There will also be an entertainment room, where clients can watch television in the evenings and socialize;

Garden plots for residents to grow their own vegetables — not only giving them food-growing experience but to also supplement the cost of food;

Emergency dorms to shelter overflow when weather conditions become dangerous;

Full apartments for the longer-term veteran residents like Mark Schuler.

While housing the needy is a primary function at CISS, Gross and Timm said a major purpose is to show the veteran clients they are valued.

“I’d be either back in jail or dead if I weren’t here,” Schuler said. “They have help here and a 24/7 day room for veterans. I stay here all day and stay out of trouble. It’s a safe place.” CV

Editor’s note: At the time this story was originally written (March of 2012), Mark Schuler was still struggling to figure out what to do next. He’d been told that his car had been stolen, but he was working on getting more clothes and trying to stay clean long enough to find himself a home. He was hoping to get into a veterans’ program that would help him return to school, with dreams of becoming a doctor to help people in his situation. Meantime, he was hoping to leave Central Iowa Shelter and Services and get placed with a veterans’ temporary housing program and utilize the rehabilitation services at the Veterans’ Hospital. However, the housing program has a long waiting list. CISS case workers have not seen or heard from Schuler since March. Like approximately 90 percent of the shelter’s clientele, he left with no forwarding address or contact information. His current status and whereabouts are unknown.


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Central Iowa Shelter and Services.

205 15th St.

Des Moines, Iowa 50309

(515) 284-5719

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