Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - Shelter overflow finally has a fixed location

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 15, 2009

Our View - Shelter overflow finally has a fixed location

Anyone involved with Shelter House's Interim Overflow Project -- which is overseen by the Consultation of Religious Communities and requires about 450 volunteers to operate -- 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 of the 2004 plans as possible and to figure out how to reignite a capital campaign during the worst economic downturn 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 at 429 Southgate Ave. 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.

Although the timeline for opening the new Shelter House has been pushed back until October 2010, we're glad to hear that this year's overflow project is going to offer a little more consistency than in the past. For the first time since the program began, there is going to be a dedicated site for all those extra beds.

This season, as temperatures dip and wind chills plummet, volunteers will be shuttling people to and from the old St. Patrick's Parish Hall at 421 S. Linn St. With the congregation having moved into its new building on the far east end of town, the Iowa City government purchased the property from the church and is leasing it to the shelter for the winter season.

So while this winter's overflow is not quite what more optimistic organizers had in mind for this year, the use of the old parish hall marks a significant step forward -- one that hopefully will encourage Shelter House supporters to maintain both their realism and their optimism about what will be available next year.

To make sure that the new Shelter House facility actually opens in 2010, the community needs to continue to support the program. 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 the situation becomes a matter of life and death for anyone turned away by Shelter House during the worst of winter weather.

Our community needs to continue to step up and to ensure not only that Shelter House has enough money to meet its construction needs, but also that it is has enough money and volunteers to expand its programming needs as well.

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