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Release: Oct. 1, 1999

Homelessness is a local issue, say organizers of UI Oct. 4 public discussion

IOWA CITY -- Iowa City and the Johnson County area's largely unseen homeless population is made up primarily of children, says a University of Iowa professor who is conducting research on Iowa's homeless population.

A public discussion on homelessness and fair housing will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 4 at the UI College of Law, fourth-floor Student Lounge. Among the panelists scheduled to appear are: law professors Lois Cox and Patricia Cain; Heather Macdonald, associate professor, Graduate Program in Urban and Regional Planning; Karen Kubby, Iowa City city councilor; Heather Shank, director, Iowa City Human Rights Commission; and Nancy Stensvaag, of Habitat for Humanity, Iowa City Chapter.

On Tuesday, Oct. 5, Iowa City workers will conduct a point-in-time count of homeless people in certain areas of the city, says Linda Sevenson, human services director for the Johnson County Council of Governments. The workers will conduct the count by going to various city locales where the homeless traditionally gather, such as beneath bridges and in parked cars, Sevenson says.

The count, last taken in 1994, will be done as a part of Iowa City's "City Steps" program, a consolidated plan for housing, jobs and services for low-income residents. The city is required to conduct the count every five years in order to receive federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sevenson says.

Heather Macdonald, associate professor, Graduate Program in Urban and Regional Planning, is conducting a count of the homeless that is required by the federal government so that the state can continue to receive federal dollars to provide services for the homeless in urban and rural areas.

The last statewide count conducted in 1997 showed Iowa's homeless population was 4,983 during a one-month period. The report also estimated that 59,558 people experienced several "incidents" or episodes of homelessness either chronically or at least once during the calendar year. Still other findings showed 55 percent of Iowa's homeless were children and youth less than 18 years old; 70 percent were white and lived in the state's largest eight metropolitan counties.

"It's harder to count homeless persons in rural areas because not all of homeless persons go to shelters for aid, but reports from various schools show the homeless -- particularly children-- are doubled up with friends or family in a single house," Macdonald says.

According to the 1994 Consolidated Plan, two Iowa City emergency shelters provided services for 1,100 homeless people that year.

"I think it's surprising for many people to realize there is a homeless and housing problem in this area," Macdonald says.

"The stereotype is that homeless persons have drug and alcohol problems, but so many people are without a place to live because of family breakups due to domestic violence and for other reasons. We should be concerned about homelessness and the availability of housing" in this area, Macdonald says.

Johnson County has low vacancy rates like large metropolitan cities such as San Francisco, Macdonald says. And, that, she says, creates problems for non-students who live in Johnson County, which has the highest housing prices in the state.

"Students can put three people in a $750- or $950-per-month apartment and split the costs equally. That's difficult for the average one-wage earner family," Macdonald says.

Although a high number of people are employed in the area, high rent and housing costs make it difficult for a person to maintain a decent home and pay for water and other utilities, and living expenses such as health insurance and clothes, Macdonald says. "This is a market-based problem that can be corrected," she says.

"It's hard to know where to start to correct the problem. But one of the things we can do is to provide a safety net for people during upheavals," Macdonald says. "Six months of assistance will keep people out of a shelter and will allow them to get on their feet. People need housing assistance, and that's cheaper than shelter costs, which include staff and administration costs. Persons without homes can be provided with rent vouchers and greater subsidized housing.

"It's easier to supplement the income that a family already has than wait for them to get evicted and then pay all the costs of shelter and getting them back in stable housing," Macdonald adds.

Individuals with disabilities are encouraged to attend all University of Iowa-sponsored events. If you are a person with a disability who requires an accommodation in order to participate in this program, please contact the College of Law in advance at (319) 335-9023