Homelessness is on the
rise in the suburbs
by Michael Swanger
was a moment Lindsey Storrs will
never forget. As she was punched
in the head through the shower
door of her South Side home on
Halloween night and saw the lifelessness
in the eyes of her attacker -
her live-in boyfriend and father
of her two infant boys - she realized
she had to find a new place to
"I knew then and there
I had to get out," she says.
"I just didn't think I would
end up homeless."
But where does a 25-year-old
single mother with no income,
no family support system, a history
of alcohol and drug abuse, and
mental and behaviorial disorders
turn for help? A call to the police
landed her boyfriend of three
years in jail for the night, though
she blames her "infamous
temper" for instigating the
incident when she challenged him
to a fight. And a court-issued
restraining order would keep him
away and buy her some time to
house hunt. But she couldn't stand
the thought of staying in the
place where she had been brutally
A few weeks prior to her attack,
Storrs' other half was pressuring
her to move out with the kids.
They argued about his alleged
alcoholism and her anxiety over
raising their two children alone
with little money. When her plea
for an extension to stay at home
fell on deaf ears, though Storrs
went to the only place she knew:
the YWCA. But unfortunately, she
couldn't afford the $250 room.
Not to mention she didn't feel
"The minute I saw my room
I cried and said 'No way. I'll
sleep in my car,'" she says.
"After that I called every
housing program I could think
of, but nobody would take me."
Scrambling to find a place to
stay wasn't a new experience for
Storrs. The product of a dysfunctional
Carlisle family, she says by the
time she was a teenager she was
accustomed to a hard lifestyle
that included consuming copious
amounts of alcohol and marijuana
and crashing with friends.
series of disciplinary problems
and five high schools later, at
the age of 16 she enrolled in
the Denison Job Corps Center,
a school for troubled teens. It
was a last-ditch attempt to straighten
out her life, and Storrs was excelling
in her coursework, well on her
way toward earning her GED. She
was also clean and sober.
"It was fun," she
says. "It was like college
without the alcohol and drugs."
The fun, however, didn't last
long. One night she was caught
drinking by school officials and
the next day she was out the door
with tears in her eyes.
With nowhere to turn, Storrs
took a job with a national company
working as a door-to-door magazine
salesperson. It suited her wanderlust,
and she returned to drugs and
alcohol. The job lasted two years
and she wound up in San Diego,
shacking up with a sailor, working
as an exotic dancer by the age
"I used to wake up in Tijuana
and wonder how I got there,"
But when her relationship and
career didn't pan out in California
she returned to Iowa. That's when
she met her boyfriend at a bar
in Earlham. Two months later she
was pregnant with the couple's
"I never had that maternal
thing," she says. "Then
he was born and it just clicked."
But before those instincts kicked
in, a prenatal blood test revealed
Storrs was smoking pot during
her pregnancy and state officials
sent her to Broadlawns Medical
Center to address her substance
abuse. She was subject to frequent
drug testing and was referred
to Primary Health Care Inc., a
group that provides health care
for low-income Iowans.
Primary Health Care, Storrs
says, played an important role
in saving her pregnancy. But little
did she know two years later they
would also help her find shelter
in the unlikeliest of places -
the Des Moines suburbs.
An invisible community
Storrs' story, sadly, is like
others in the urban center of
Des Moines. But for years, unbeknownst
to many, similar tales of hardship
have unfolded in the city's western
suburbs. The problem, experts
say, is that the public is largely
unaware of the growing population
of homeless or near-homeless families
there. They say the destitute
are an invisible community concealed
by the misconception that suburbia
is merely the playground for the
"I think people have the
impression that West Des Moines
is an affluent community,"
says Jim Cain, executive director
of the Iowa Coalition for Housing
and the Homeless, a non-profit
outreach and advocacy group. "But
there are parts of West Des Moines
that have median income levels
similar to lower-income neighborhoods
in Des Moines and they need help."
Since 1979, West Des Moines
Human Services has assisted homeless
and low-income residents in their
community as well as those in
Urbandale, Clive, Windsor Heights,
portions of Johnston and surrounding
areas. Their focus is homelessness
prevention and they provide food,
clothing, transitional housing,
transportation, emergency rent
and utility assistance and subsidies
for daycare to those who qualify
under federal guidelines. And
according to recent department
figures, there is a growing need
for their services.
During the fiscal year of 2004-2005,
West Des Moines Human Services
assisted more than 1,750 households,
382 of which were homeless. That
number is up from the 327 homeless
households it served in 2003-2004
and the 202 in 2002-2003.
"We've seen those numbers
increase every year," says
Susan Paterson-Nielsen, director.
"Some people don't think
that's a big deal, but it is.
That's a lot of people who are
of those 382 people, Paterson-Nielsen
says, live on the streets or in
abandoned buildings and cars.
Some find shelter near Valley
West Mall or under bridges and
refuse assistance. The woods near
the Raccoon River offer shelter
for others and is a short walk
away from the human services office
at 318 Fifth St. where they can
shower and pick up food and toiletries.
The increase of homelessness
in the suburbs, experts say, is
a microcosm of a statewide trend.
Last week, the Iowa Council on
Homelessness reported findings
from a new study that showed 21,280
Iowans were homeless in 2005.
That figure is up more than 14
percent from the 18,592 counted
in 1995. Officials say the fastest-growing
segment of the homeless population
is single mothers with children
and teenagers disowned by their
Cain says there are a number
of reasons that people are displaced
from their homes, including debt
caused by unemployment, low wages
and rising housing costs, as well
as domestic abuse, mental disorders
and substance abuse. He says a
number of low-income workers seek
jobs in service industries in
the suburbs, including restaurants
and hotels, noting they prefer
to live near their places of employment.
Suburban homeless are also a mix
of transients who leave the inner
city and its shelters because
they believe life is better in
"It's a national trend,"
Cain says. "The suburbs keep
moving out and people are moving
with them. Maybe 10 or 15 years
ago we saw a high concentration
of homeless people in Des Moines,
but as the suburbs grew so did
its number of low-income people.
Now the suburbs are like the new
inner city in that respect."
Homelessness takes a slightly
different form in the suburbs
than in urban centers, where the
stereotypical image of a male
hobo panhandling on the streets
doesn't always apply. Most homeless
people in the suburbs can't pay
their rent and don't have relatives
or friends to stay with.
"I've found the last thing
people don't pay is the rent because
having a roof is the most important
thing," Cain says. "You
can live without heat or water,
but as soon as you lose your house
Many near-homeless households
are working poor families that
are a paycheck or major medical
expense away from the streets.
Some are considered low income
by federal guidelines in which
a family of four earns $19,350
or less, forcing them to make
tough decisions on how to pay
"If I'm injured do I pay
for my health care or my rent?"
says Cain. "If I don't pay
for my co-pay for physical therapy
or a prescription I'm not going
to be able to work. That money
doesn't seem like much to you
and me, but it's all the difference
in being able to pay the rent."
Paterson-Nielsen says providing
emergency rent funds to near-homeless
families is crucial. Last month,
the department applied for a $50,000
grant from the Iowa Department
of Economic Development (IDED)
to help pay for those services,
though their request won't be
processed until April. Last year
they received $22,000 from the
"We give a lot of attention
to those situations because it's
easier to get them back on their
feet in their own home than it
is if they're on the street,"
she says. "It can be devastating
to families, especially young
The department also operates
four transitional housing units
for the homeless in Valley Junction.
Carole Bodin, coordinator, says
the program allows four families
the opportunity to participate
in the program for a period of
six months to two years. During
that time a case manager assesses
their needs and refers them to
the appropriate support services,
including job training and independent
living skills. Adults must be
employed, actively looking for
work or attending school to remain
eligible. Each family pays 30
percent of its income into an
escrow account that is refundable
at the end of the program. Bodin
says it helps families learn how
to manage money and save for a
place of their own.
"We want them to see a
light at the end of the tunnel,"
Act of faith
Shedding some light on what otherwise
is a dark period for those who
become homeless is what the Des
Moines Interfaith Hospitality
A local chapter founded in 2004
from the national organization
of Interfaith Hospitality Networks,
the nonprofit, interdenominational
group of 20 churches, more than
half of which are located in the
western suburbs, provides shelter,
transportation and financial counseling
to homeless families. It is one
of the few homeless programs in
the Des Moines area that allows
entire families to stay together.
Some churches are designated
as "support" churches
in which they provide money and
volunteers. Others are "host"
sites, offering a full range of
services including shelter and
three meals a day. They take turns
hosting a family for a week.
West Des Moines Christian Church
is one of the group's hosts. The
Rev. Randy Ehrhardt says the congregation
was eager to embrace the program
that provides care for up to 15
"It's the mission of the
church to reach out to the community
with hope and compassion,"
he says. "We've been blessed
with a great facility and we want
to use it to help others."
The network also operates a
day center from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.,
which gives families a place to
go during the daytime hours. The
center used to be located in West
Des Moines, but moved its operations
to Westminster Presbyterian Church
in Des Moines last September.
Kelsey Parker, the program's
only full-time paid employee,
says the IHN accepts three to
five families referred to them
by social service agencies. Unlike
most shelters that allow homeless
guests to stay for only 30 days,
the IHN lets families stay for
up to 90 days as long as they
are working on their goals outlined
by the program.
"They need a place to stay
so they can get back on their
feet," she says. "Sometimes
that takes a while."
are no strangers at the Eddie
Davis Community Center in West
Des Moines, only friendly volunteers
more than willing to help those
in need and not ask any questions.
And on this Tuesday night, like
most, the need is great.
In the kitchen, women from the
Church Opportunity Group (COG)
are busy preparing the center's
free weekly dinner, which will
serve 56 hungry people by the
end of the night. The COG, a consortium
of local ministries, and West
Des Moines Human Services rotate
supplying weekly meals. The center
also serves free lunches Monday
through Friday with food donated
by the Food Bank of Iowa and area
Next to the kitchen, the young
and old alike search for winter
items in the center's clothing
closet, which is chock-full of
free donated items. Adjacent to
that, a young woman and her toddler
stock up on free canned goods
in a small food pantry. Across
from the dining room, children
utilize the free computer lab
and tutoring services. And down
the hall the waiting room at the
Mae E. Davis Free Medical Clinic
is teeming with 30 to 40 people
from all walks of life. They are
in need of treatment by one of
the clinic's licensed physicians
and nurses who, like everyone
else at the center, volunteer
their time and talent to help
homeless and low-income families.
"If we have it, we give
it to them," says Vicky Long-Hill,
the center's volunteer executive
director and an attorney who provides
pro bono legal referral services.
"We have a no-questions-asked
Since the medical clinic's foundation
in 1995 and the center's incorporation
in 1999, the non-profit organization
has adhered to that unique policy.
It provides a plethora of services
to those in Polk and surrounding
counties who may or may not meet
federal guidelines for assistance
and need additional help.
Keith Brown frequents the center.
The 46-year-old disabled West
Des Moines man receives assistance
from human services, but lives
on a fixed income and relies on
the center's free meals, energy
assistance and transportation
offerings to help make ends meet.
"They don't care who it
is, if they need help they'll
do it," he says. "They're
Barbara Long, the center's 74-year-old
matriarch, says it picks up the
slack where government relief
falls short. Over the years, she
says, there has been a growing
need for those services in West
Des Moines. An advocate for the
homeless and poor since the 1960s
when she started working for West
Side social service groups, she
denounces the stigma that there
isn't a homelessness problem in
"We've heard that for years,"
she says. "But if there wasn't
a need we wouldn't have this center."
The center relies on donations
to keep its doors open to serve
the needy. Mel Harper, who used
to own nightclubs and a construction
business, serves as the center's
primary fund raiser. Two years
ago, he started a campaign to
raise about $500,000 to pay off
the center's mortgage and debt.
Today, the center is about $70,000
short of its goal.
"We've had generous support,"
he says. "To look at where
we started two years ago to today
you wouldn't believe it."
Though community support has
increased, a sense of family has
been felt at the building at 1312
Maple St. from the beginning.
Maybe that's because Long's family,
including her husband John (whose
mother the medical clinic was
named after and who volunteers
there at least eight hours a day)
and their children play such integral
roles in its day-to-day operation.
Without them, says 65-year-old
Vivian Jordan, a longtime volunteer,
there might not have been a center.
"The Long family has always
seen a need in this area,"
she says. "As long as this
family exists there will always
It's Friday the 13th, but for
a change, Storrs feels lucky as
she pulls a drag from her cigarette
and peers at the full moon outside
her temporary Valley Junction
A single mother who was on the
verge of being homeless with her
two young children in October,
she was fortunate enough to be
accepted into West Des Moines
Human Services' Transitional Housing
Program in November. A social
service worker with Primary Health
Care Inc. helped her apply to
the program. She competed with
more than 20 families for the
opening, all of whom were required
to write an essay as to why they
deserved placement in the program.
"I didn't think I had a
shot in the dark," says Storrs,
a full-time student at Des Moines
Area Community College. "I
think they chose me because I'm
However, even though she's in
the program, Storrs says she struggles
to make ends meet. Welfare, food
stamps and a student loan help
cover her expenses, including
her $9-per-month rent. She relies
on the kindness of her case manager
and that of strangers, like the
community group that gave her
numerous items including diapers,
clothing and toys for her children
during the holidays.
In addition to those services,
the program provides Storrs psychiatric
care and she attends a life skills
class entitled "Breaking
Barriers." She says the class
has helped her identify her goals.
"They teach you how to
break old habits and be more positive,"
she says. "My whole life
I've been around drugs and now
there's no more partying. It's
not worth screwing up being here.
I have kids and I have to settle
Storrs says she is often overwhelmed
by her responsibilities as a single
parent and worries about becoming
institutionalized. She also fears
living on the streets when her
program with human services expires.
It's a life she never imagined
"Sometimes it's like a
cage, like I'm stuck here with
my children," she says. "I've
thought of giving them up for
adoption. There are rich people
who could give them what they
need, but I love them too much.
I guess this program just happened
to be here when I needed it the
on this story | Return