Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - Shelter overflow needs consistent space in winter

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 3, 2009)

Anyone involved with Shelter House's Interim Overflow Project -- which is overseen by the Consultation of Religious Communities -- has to be somewhere on the spectrum between a realistic optimist and an optimistic realist.

Begun in 2004 after the plans to relocate and expand Shelter House were stymied through lawsuits by the neighboring property owners, the program has organized dozens of churches and hundreds of volunteers to provide thousands of nights of shelter during the coldest months of the year.

Last year, the optimistic realists held out hope that it really might be the last year for this "interim" program. With the Iowa Supreme Court having ruled in the Shelter House's favor against the neighboring property owners, supporters wanted to see their long deferred relocation and expansion finally come to fruition. The staff and board worked to use as much as of the 2004 plans as possible and to figure out how to reignite a capital campaign during the worst economic downtown in recent history.

The realistic optimists knew it was a long shot, but they too were hoping Shelter House would defy the odds, raise the necessary cash, begin construction and have enough of a new shelter completed on Southgate Avenue that it could serve as this year's overflow for the North Gilbert Street facility.

Supporters -- including us -- hoped local religious communities would finally be let off the hook for providing shelter in facilities not expressly built for such uses. That they would be allowed to focus on other issues of social justice and economic need.

But the newest timeline for Shelter House's relocation and expansion shows that last year's hopes were more optimistic than realistic. Ground breaking for the facility is a scheduled for July 1, and the organizers already have raised $2 million of their $4 million goal. But construction of the new facility will be nowhere near complete enough to serve as a shelter overflow when the temperatures begin to dip down to dangerous levels.

The Consultation of Religious Communities once again is trying to coordinate overflow spaces in facilities that have an open room large enough to give volunteers a constant line of sight on the people seeking shelter for the night. Co-coordinating these facilities is even more difficult this year because space is limited in churches, such as Trinity Episcopal and St. Thomas More, because of construction projects, relocation and even housing programs displaced from the University of Iowa.

The consultation had hoped to approach Iowa City to use the St. Patrick Parish Hall after the church moves out to its new building, but that move won't take place until at least halfway through the winter. And there are no set plans that have been made for after the city takes possession of the hall.

The consultation likewise approached the Johnson County Board of Supervisors with the creative request of using an unfinished, open space in the county's new human services building. But that request was turned down for a variety of legitimate -- but still workable -- reasons. The county has suggested some other sites, but they don't offer volunteers and staff as clear a line of site as does the room in the health building.

We're glad Shelter House supporters remain both optimistic and realistic about the timeline for the shelter's relocation and expansions. Every study and anecdotal account confirms that Johnson County needs far more general shelter space than the few dozen slots available at the North Gilbert Street facility. And when the temperature drops during the worst of winter, anyone turned away from the shelter faces a life or death situation.

It's time for the community to stand up and support Shelter House at its July 1 groundbreaking. It's time to make sure the facility not only has enough money to meet its construction needs but enough to expand its programming needs as well.

In the meantime, we need our government facilities to offer their public-supported open spaces as readily as our local religious communities have been doing for nearly five years.

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