New facility slated to open next month to serve
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
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
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.
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
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,
“Eight churches came together and said, ‘We’re
going to provide shelter for everybody regardless
of the choices they made during the day,’ ”
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.”
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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.”
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.
Want to help?
Donate your time, services, money, food or
Central Iowa Shelter and Services.
205 15th St.
Des Moines, Iowa 50309