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Counts show the number of Iowans experiencing homelessness is slightly increasing

Homeward's January Point-in-Time count showed 644 in Polk County experiencing homelessness. That's up 6% from the same time last year.
Josie Fischels
IPR News
Homeward's January Point-in-Time count showed 644 in Polk County experiencing homelessness. That's up 6% from the same time last year.

Counts of people who are experiencing homelessness in Iowa show slight upticks compared to last year.

Point-in-time counts take place over a 24-hour period to survey those who are experiencing homelessness, are unsheltered, or are using emergency shelters or transitional housing.

The Iowa Balance of State Continuum of Care connects people to resources and helps distribute funding to programs across the state and includes 96 Iowa counties. It excludes Polk, Pottawattamie and Woodbury counties.

Its January count found 308 individuals were unsheltered in Iowa, 12 people more than last year, said Courtney Guntly, the director of the Iowa Balance of State Continuum of Care. That means people who are living in places not meant for human habitation, like in cars or on the street.

Guntly said that increase is likely due to more people using emergency shelters compared to last year. But current economic conditions and the loss of some funding means there are more people experiencing homelessness overall.

Meanwhile, a similar count in Polk County also showed an increase of people experiencing homelessness. That count includes people using emergency shelters and transitional housing, as well as unsheltered people.

Homeward, a regional planning organization focusing on homelessness, performed the count in Polk County, finding that 644 people were experiencing homelessness. That’s up six percent from the same time last year, and nearly identical to the last pre-pandemic count in January 2020.

"I think what the comparison signals is a return to pre-COVID service utilization in those emergency shelters," Homeward's executive director Angie Arthur said. "Those different populations who move may have stayed away due to the safety concerns during that time of the pandemic."

Among those counted in Polk County, there was a significant increase in people who reported they were fleeing domestic violence—the highest total the count has seen in five years.

"From a larger perspective, a lot of the funding that we see within our state focuses on correctional aspects, as opposed to prevention of domestic violence, and supporting the victims and the choices that they make for how they want to flee or address domestic violence within their life," Arthur said.

There was also an increase in the number of people who reported dealing with substance use.

The count did show a continued decrease in youth and veteran homelessness. Arthur said that’s due to the success of special programs targeting those groups.

Homeward's report also shows an overrepresentation of Black Iowans who are experiencing homelessness. Of the people included in the count, 25% identified as Black or African American, while 7% of Polk County residents are Black or African American.

"What I think it shows is the long term effects of discrimination within our country and our communities," Arthur said. "Lots of times when we are serving folks, they've maybe been served by other systems or been failed by other systems. So I think it shows that there's just a wide scale need to look at how we serve our community members of color, and how we make sure that the things that we are doing don't cause more disparity within the work and support that we are providing to folks within our community experiencing homelessness."

Guntly, with the Iowa Balance of State Continuum of Care, said homelessness in rural areas can be very different than in urban areas. It can be harder to find people and direct them to resources because there’s less population density and fewer service providers, she said.

"That makes it challenging when we really want to serve people where they are and where they may want to get rehoused because they have those same family or friends or other the community surrounding them. So if people have the community and want to stay in their rural, community that we want to make sure we respect that," Guntly said.

Both Guntly and Arthur said a lack affordable housing in Iowa is a main cause of homelessness here.

Guntly said that the pandemic's eviction moratorium has had a significant impact on landlords who no longer are willing to work with groups looking to place people in housing.

"When they may not have gotten paid for quite some time, and they may not be willing to work with our housing providers anymore to rehouse someone in those units. And we know that a lot of our housing providers that are serving people getting out of homelessness are working with the smaller landlords, the ones who might just have a couple of units in the community and not necessarily are big property owners that own a ton of units," she said.

Guntly said the group recently received $5 million to address homelessness in rural communities in the state. Those grants will start later this year and run for three years.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.