It was a pleasure to be part of the first-ever Cass County Point in Time Unsheltered (Street) Count in February. The event was to have taken place January 29-30 but permission was granted by HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development) for Iowa to conduct the count a week later due to the record-setting cold. A core group of organizers, mostly from Cass County Memorial Hospital and Zion Recovery Services, started planning in the fall and met regularly to prepare.
Activities included collecting supplies – mostly water, packaged food and toiletries – but also winter coats and backpacks to hold the collected items. Posters were created and distributed throughout the county, local schools, law enforcement, libraries and churches were contacted, and two members of the planning team spoke on a local radio program to raise community awareness of the count and the need for supportive housing. On the night of the count, teams of two fanned out to check all places identified as likely or possible sites where persons were known in recent times to have been living. These included parks, fairgrounds, parking lots, and abandoned structures. Overall, the level of planning and organization were remarkable, especially for a first-time effort.
The count found at least four people who met the criteria for literally homeless (numbers are unofficial until HUD issues its national report), mostly sleeping in cars. There were many others who were known to be “couch surfing,” but were nevertheless in a place meant for human habitation, meaning they don’t meet the definition of literal homelessness for the Point in Time count. Interestingly, the hospital reported for the first time in memory, several people seeking shelter on the night of the original count. The hospital doors are locked in the early evening and the staff working overnight do not normally find people seeking to spend the night; However, the extreme cold and winds, driving wind chill numbers to -30 and lower, caused those who had nowhere else to go to turn to the hospital.
With a count in hand, agencies seeking state and federal funds for shelter and/or rapid rehousing (temporary rent and case management) to serve Cass County residents experiencing homelessness stand a better chance of receiving grants. Funding applications are expected in the summer for programs that would start in January of 2020.
Kudos to all the volunteers who helped with this first-ever Point-in-Time street count in Cass County!