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Iowa homeless shelters brace for higher heating bills this winter

 The Warming Shelter in Sioux City is one of Iowa's homeless shelters that will have to battle rising heating bills this winter.
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
The Warming Shelter in Sioux City is one of Iowa's homeless shelters that will have to battle rising heating bills this winter.

With higher heating bills predicted for this winter, homeless shelters in Iowa are preparing to shoulder the additional expenses. Some donation-run shelters worry about how the future of their services will fare with the extra cost.

When the COVID-19 pandemic impacted many Iowans' ability to pay their utility bills, a homeless shelter in Council Bluffs responded.

New Visions Homeless Services began a homeless prevention program last year, where they financially assist those struggling to retain housing. The shelter’s director Dalton Messersmith said the non-profit worked tirelessly to expand their outreach in the area.

But, with higher heating bills expected for this winter and less government assistance provided to the organization, he’s not so sure they’ll be able to provide that same support in the coming months.

“Now, come this winter when they can't afford their heat bill because it was $120 more than it was the year before, they're going to call us and we aren't necessarily going to have that funding,” Messersmith said.

Iowa energy companies predict heating bills could increase anywhere from around 50 to 100 percent, due to the prices of natural gas nearly doubling since last year. This surge in prices worries some homeless shelters who rely on community donations to pay their utility bills.

“We’re going to find whatever it takes to keep our people’s heat on,” Messersmith said.

“To the 80 individuals who are currently staying here and all of my staff, it would be devastating to all of us if we had to close our doors because of costs and not being able to pay the bills.”
Tessa Shanks, executive director at the Warming Shelter in Sioux City

The southwest Iowa shelter has 64 beds for men in need of housing in the area. But, in the director’s five years with the shelter, he said they’ve always had an overflow of need. Messersmith estimates that they house around 70 to 125 men each night, using any extra space they have in their dining hall.

In addition to the shelter, New Visions also has a warming center and 26 permanent housing units for the “chronically homeless”, or those who need the most ongoing support and case management. The organization will need to fund the utilities on each of these buildings.

“We're trying to adapt to ‘How are we going to fulfill all these commitments we've made? How are we going to keep everyone safe without cutting any of our programs?,” he said. “Because that's just not an option.”

Similar concerns pervade the staff at the Warming Shelter in Sioux City, which opens each winter to provide relief from Iowa’s harsh cold weather. Executive director of the shelter Tessa Shanks said she’s unsure if their allotted utilities budget will cover the expected price surge.

If she finds the funding isn’t there in the coming months, the shelter, which usually runs from November to April, may have to consider closing early this season.

The Warming Shelter
Kendall Crawford
/
IPR
The Warming Shelter provides shelter to the Sioux City homeless community. The shelter is bracing for rising energy costs that could impact its ability to provide services.

“You’re not just talking about closing a business down. You're talking about people living on the streets, people being forced to go out on the streets and so it's a huge deal to me,” Shanks said.

In October, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected market prices this winter heating season would be the highest since 2007 to 2008.

Natural gas is a pass-through cost to customers, meaning it is not marked up by Iowa energy providers. Geoff Greenwood, a spokesperson for MidAmerican Energy, said rather that the surge can be attributed to production and storage of natural gas not keeping pace with high demand.

“It has just put a lot of pressure on the commodity market and natural gas prices have gone way up,” he said.

Many of these costs haven’t been felt by Iowa’s housing shelters yet. Shanks said she will have to wait until late December and early January to know the real impact it will have on the Warming Shelter.

“It worries me. I just pray a lot,” she said. “To the 80 individuals who are currently staying here and all of my staff, it would be devastating to all of us if we had to close our doors because of costs and not being able to pay the bills.”

Across the state of Iowa, more than 2,500 people were estimated to be homeless on any given night, according to 2020 data from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Another 38 percent of Iowa renters are cost-burdened, meaning more than 30 percent of their income goes toward paying housing costs.

Messersmith said he is most concerned about how increased energy costs could impact cost-burdened Iowans. Any additional expenses could complicate their ability to afford housing, he said.

“We’re going to find whatever it takes to keep our people’s heat on."
Dalton Messersmith, shelter program director at New Visions Homeless Services in Council Bluffs

“I'm fearful for the people who are low income who have been through our shelter program and then found independent housing. I’m fearful of what that looks like for them,” he said.

Regardless of the additional costs likely to come their way as the temperature begins to drop, both Iowa homeless shelters said they will fight to keep their services available.

“Rising costs of energy aren’t going to stop us. We're going to continue to grow. We're going to continue to serve whatever needs present,” Messersmith said.