Coalition forms to aid local homeless
By ANDREW MCGINN
The Rev. Julie Poulsen at First United Methodist Church was beginning to feel overwhelmed.
It seemed like every time law enforcement encountered a homeless person in need of shelter for a night, she got the call.
“We should share the burden,” she said.
Poulsen finally took the problem to the county clergy association — where she found out they all were facing the same problem.
“The world is changing,” said Sheldon Henderson, pastor at Central Christian Church and chair of the fledgling Greene County Homeless Coalition. “People become homeless quicker these days. There are more people living paycheck-to-paycheck.”
Even before the coalition had its first meeting in 2018, the Greene County Medical Center was coming to its own conclusion: Homelessness in Greene County needed to be addressed.
“It was the perfect timing to make a great collaboration,” said Sara Miller, a social worker in the medical center’s public health department.
The coalition — an alliance of churches, the medical center, New Opportunities, the schools and law enforcement — will conduct what’s believed to be Greene County’s first-ever Point-in-Time Count, a census of the local homeless population, Jan. 30-31 along with cities and counties across the nation.
The goal is to try and determine, with data, the exact scope of the problem in Greene County.
“The numbers we believe we have are very small,” said Miller, who is organizing the count. “At any given time, we’ve had under five (homeless people) in our warmest months.”
The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development requires a biennial Point-in-Time Count the last week in January for communities to receive federal homeless assistance grants.
Many communities conduct one annually.
Teams of local volunteers Jan. 30-31 will scour parks, campgrounds, bridges, laundromats, convenience stores and other locations in search of anyone living without shelter.
People who are couch-surfing — which includes some high school students — are of interest to the coalition, but won’t be included in the count, Miller said.
Teams will have hygiene kits to give out and will attempt to collect as much information as they can from the individual.
Admittedly, they may not find anyone.
Tim Wilson, executive director of Home Forward Iowa, a homelessness advocacy group, said that when a rural county does a thorough count, people are found.
“The folks planning the Point-in-Time Count in Greene County seem very organized and thoughtful about the process,” Wilson said. “The Point-in-Time provides an opportunity to collect real numbers to support their anecdotal experiences.”
In 2018, he said, 59 of Iowa’s 99 counties conducted a Point-in-Time Count — up from 35 in 2017.
Long term, Henderson explained, the Greene County Homeless Coalition wants to prevent homelessness from happening locally in the first place.
Wilson said he’s aware of a need for more housing services in Greene County.
Up to now, Miller said, “We have done the best we can.”
Along the way, the coalition hopes to change the notion that homelessness is an urban problem.
“People say, ‘I don’t see them,’” Henderson said.
“Until you talk to a person,” he added, “you don’t know if they’re homeless or not.”
And no two people, they say, are homeless for the same reason.
“Every situation is very individualized,” Miller said.
Greene County has long been a way-stop along U.S. Highway 30 for transient people, Henderson said.
But with some residents now just a furnace repair bill away from homelessness, it’s no longer possible to look away.
“It’s an eye-opener to be involved at this level,” Henderson said.
How you can help
Volunteers are needed to help the Greene County Homeless Coalition conduct a Point-in-Time Count, a census of the local homeless population, Jan. 30-31.
Contact Sara Miller at Greene County Public Health at 515-386-3228.
Donations of winterwear and hygiene products can be dropped off at Central Christian Church, 108 N. Elm St. in Jefferson, between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.
The coalition can’t yet accept monetary donations, but money can be donated to the Good Samaritan Fund of the Greene County Clergy Association.