Can you help?
It’s that time of year when the toilet seat seems unnaturally cold.
Now imagine, on a morning like any this week, having to squat over a cold piece of cookware in an unheated garage.
What I’m about to tell you may seem completely and utterly unthinkable here in cozy, small-town Iowa: we’ve had, and may currently have, people right here in our own community who don’t have to imagine what it might be like to wake up in a garage and relieve themselves in an old pot or pan.
It’s their reality.
The Rev. Julie Poulsen, of First United Methodist Church in Jefferson, has made it her personal and professional mission to assist the people who live among us like ghosts, invisible except to those who choose to see.
Oh, the stories she can tell.
During Tuesday’s Zoom meeting of the Greene County Clergy Association, Poulsen gave an update on two women in town who are currently living in a room of an unheated house. One or both are in need of services Greene County can’t offer, but they refuse to leave. So Poulsen does what she can.
It’s that kind of thankless, unseen work Poulsen had in mind when she co-founded the Greene County Homeless Coalition in 2018. Frankly, Poulsen felt she alone was shouldering the heavy burden of helping — until she began wondering if others felt the same way.
The homeless coalition was born.
Without question, though, Poulsen is the coalition’s heart and soul.
And now she’s leaving.
Well, not until June, at least. But retirement is finally within reach.
Poulsen’s impending move — coupled with a wish by the current co-chairs to step back from their leadership positions — clouded the coalition’s future. Who, if anyone, would want to assume responsibility of a loose-knit coalition that half the community doesn’t think is needed in the first place?
“We’re the best they could find,” Kyle Kinne joked as we chatted one recent morning over Zoom.
Kyle and I are in the process of becoming co-chairs of the Greene County Homeless Coalition.
I reminded Kyle that the last time we officially partnered on something, many trees were TP’d and some pumpkins were smashed. Of course, that was more than 25 years ago, when we were goofy teenagers in town.
Kyle and I went all through school together before graduating in 1995. We were once on the same baseball team. We were in the same Cub Scout den. And when we later scooped the loop in high school, we were sometimes in the same car.
But, as adults, our jobs enable us to see just how much our hometown has changed since then.
Kyle is a licensed mental health counselor and a longtime special needs counselor at Greene County High School. The notion of classmates “couch surfing” would have been a foreign concept to us at that age.
I’m the editor of the local newspaper, a position that, if you do it right, requires you to have your eyes open at all times.
For what it’s worth, I’m also midway to earning my own master’s in clinical mental health counseling. Personally, I figured that volunteering to co-chair the homeless coalition was a good way to start helping.
With his position at the school, Kyle has been a part of the coalition since its inception. I’ve helped the coalition with its Point in Time Count — which wasn’t conducted this year due to Covid — from the start.
Just to clarify something, though: It’s not just Greene County that has changed over the past 30 years. It’s society as a whole.
The reasons why people become homeless are as varied as the people themselves. But according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the No. 1 reason is because people can’t find housing they can afford.
The lack of affordable housing is arguably the signature crisis of our time, and it worsens a little more each year as long as incomes remain stagnant. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour has been the same since 2009. What else has stayed at the same rate since 2009? (Spoiler alert: nothing.)
More and more people are now one missed paycheck, one broken furnace, away from homelessness. Even in rural Iowa.
At Greene County Elementary School, 54.4 percent of kids are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Our homeless problem locally seems to very much be invisible. We simply don’t have homelessness on an urban level.
I was recently stopped at a red light near Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines and couldn’t help but notice people panhandling at all four corners of the intersection.
It is, it would seem, both the best of times and the worst of times.
You probably will never see that at any of the four-way stops in town. And thank God for it. But people here can, and do, fall on hard times just the same.
Poulsen said she typically ends up assisting the “super-poor and the mentally ill.”
“This is the underclass of the underclass of our community,” she said.
The real point of this column is this — we can’t do this work alone.
If you’re interested in joining the coalition, we will need people who are willing to help. We will need caring folks who can connect people in need to shelter, or to a ride to another community where real services exist, or to food and personal care items.
To join us, feel free to contact me at any of my email addresses associated with the newspaper, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll be up front: Kyle and I still have no real clue what we’re doing. But with Pastor Julie looking to retire and move, we need to figure out a way forward.
“We have to go back to the practical stuff,” Kyle said. “Making stuff happen.”
So let’s make something happen.