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Combating the Homeless Epidemic in Iowa

According to the congressional reports provided by the Institute of Community Alliance, an average 5,000 homeless youth are on the streets of Iowa every night. Additionally, in 2017, over 11,890 homeless individuals were served by emergency shelters, transitional housing, rapid re-housing or street outreach projects. Recently an 18-year-old pregnant woman aged out of the juvenile justice and foster care system. Her Juvenile Court Officer placed her in an apartment on the southside of Des Moines. While this seems like a positive move, there were many issues that set this young woman up to fail with the arrangement.

While she had a place to live, for a month, she has not been assisted in establishing a job, she has no marketable skills, no diploma or GED, the apartment is not near a bus route and she has no driver’s license, or even the appropriate documentation to get one. Now she has a temporary place to live but no means to continue to pay rent for herself and her soon to be added baby.

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She has no way to get to a job, except to pay $25 a day to Uber to potential job locations as there are no businesses within walking distance to her, she is now also facing an eviction on her very young credit history.

Stories like hers are all too familiar. As seen, the need for affordable housing for those coming out of homelessness is great. But not just housing alone, the need for economic growth, careers and community are also great.

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By providing not just a low-income home to live in, but also job and community support, the long-term outcomes for success in combating the homeless epidemic will be unsurpassed.

Many argue that it is impossible for most individuals to pull themselves out of poverty and that we as a society simply need to provide more permanent low-income housing options. At first glance this seems like a very valid option, if the burden of housing expenses is met then that allows individuals to use the rest of their income to meet the remainder of their living needs. The problem with this thought process is that we often ignore the racism and white privilege that unconsciously determines how we approach other individuals with our hopes and goals of fixing the struggles of “those poor people”. Frequently we do not even realize our own attitudes of toxic charity. (Gable)

The biggest downfall to this approach is that it strips people of their dignity by simply providing handouts instead of hand ups. Dr. Robert Lupton proposes using The Oath for Compassionate Service, much as physicians use the Hippocratic Oath. It goes as follows,

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm.

Taking responsibility of oneself is critical in social and emotional health. Doing for others what they could do for themselves disempowers them. It strips them of their dignity and sends a message that they cannot meet their needs themselves. By limiting the giving to one-way emergencies, it helps to evaluate if the needs are chronic or crisis. There are emergency situations that need immediate support, but it is not a valid way to handle continued needs. In order to empower the poor by employment, lending and investing it creates relationships that are mutually beneficial and allows for room to have respect, responsibility and a feeling of equality. In regard to subordinating self-interests to the needs of being served, often organizations will organize serving trips that turn to nothing more than experience trips. Where the desires of those in the organization to see and experience the area becomes more important than meeting the needs of those they intended to go support. The next oath is quite self-explanatory. Listen closely to those you seek to help. Many who are in need are cautious to share the whole story as it can lead to shame, guilt and intimidation. By listening closely and watching for body language and subtle clues it is much easier to get to the root of the needs. Lastly, Dr. Lupton states “Do no harm”. Every change has consequences. One must ask themselves if in their desire to help, are they creating dependency and ruining the individual’s self-sufficiency.

To strategically meet the realistic housing needs of the homeless population, without taking away their dignity and disempower them, it is proposed to create a community housing development, Hesed Community Development. According to the US Census Bureau only 65% of Americans own their own homes making the current economic status ideal for purchasing foreclosed homes to use as rental properties, as a way to get families into their own space and off of the streets. (Daneman)

The organization will be targeted towards meeting the needs of the local 18-25year old age demographic. This age group is often still struggling with a healthy transition into independently living on their own. Many have aged out of foster care, the juvenile justice system, unhealthy home lives, or are young single parents struggling to make ends meet. A common story amongst homeless youth is the story of violence in the home and community they grew up in. Homeless youth are significantly more likely to have been subjected to violent abuse and neglect than their peers. Many youths become homeless to leave violent home lives as it may be safer on the streets then their current homes. (Petering)

The development will run as a self-sustaining program by renting out duplexes and multi-unit homes with standard market rate tenants renting one half of the unit, and low-income tenants renting out the other half of the unit. As a part of receiving the low-income rental rates tenants will agree to programming goals to be met in 12-24 months as a part of the rental agreement.

In order to meet the initial financial need required for the first month of rent, it is proposed to local businesses and organizations to partner with incoming potential tenants that are needing assistance to meet the financial obligations. This works to the benefit of both the new potential tenants and businesses as a sort of paid trial period that can open possibilities for permanent positions within the company in the long run. Additionally, it quickly provides the potential tenant with the financial means needed to move in. By requiring both a time and financial investment to move into the units it allows a mindset of empowerment to be established.

Another pivotal mindset to establish empowerment within the development is to use an Asset Based Community Development approach. Asset-based community development (ABCD) is an approach that works with individuals’ strengths instead of their needs alone. It encourages the community members to work with one another using the skills or tools they have, and then after they have fully reached their capacity from within, then they reach to outside resources, such as government assistance, schools and churches. It is argued that by allowing every community member to be utilized to their full potential, it gives every individual a sense of dignity and belonging. “This method uses the community’s own assets and resources as the basis for development; it empowers the people of the community by encouraging them to utilize what they already possess.” (Rowland)

By asking involvement of the individual tenants, community members, and local businesses it will establish a significantly stronger sense of community and involvement than handouts alone. With this approach it will create long-term growth and success for not the tenants alone, but for the local city and housing market as well. This groundbreaking approach has the potential to finally be the change the Des Moines community needs.

Works Cited

  • Gable, Mike. “Heroes Not Welcome.” U.S. Catholic, vol. 80, no. 5, May 2015, pp. 33-36. EBSCOhost,
  • Lupton, Robert. “Take the Oath.” Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011. pp. 128-31. Print.
  • Matthew Daneman, USA Today. “Homes Scooped up for Rentals.” USA Today. 31 July 2014.
  • Petering, Robin, et al. “Violence, Trauma, Mental Health, and Substance Use Among Homeless Youth Juggalos.” Child Psychiatry & Human Development, vol. 48, no. 4, Aug. 2017, pp. 642-50. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10578-016-0689-5. Accessed 5 Mar. 2019.
  • Rowland, Stan (26 April, 2008) Collaborative of Neighborhood Transformation.

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Combating the Homeless Epidemic in Iowa. (2019, Dec 18). Retrieved from

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