Homelessness affects residents of Ames

Dave Nunn isn’t staying at the Emergency Residence Project’s shelter anymore. After staying there for about five weeks, he moved out last weekend. Most people are only allowed to stay two weeks, but Nunn was given an extension because of the progress he had made in finding a job. Nunn, like many other citizens of Ames, has experienced homelessness. “I lost my job about a year ago during some layoffs,” he said. “I looked for another job in the area and applied to a lot of places, but I was only called in for an interview at one place. There were ten people applying for six open slots, so I didn’t get that.” Nunn lost his home, and couldn’t stay in his hometown of Boone because all of the shelters were full. Fortunately, things are looking up for him. “I just got a job working 12 hour days, and once I save up a couple paychecks, I’ll be able to make it on my own,” Nunn said. However, not all people are as lucky as Nunn in being able to get back on their feet. One man staying at the shelter, who wished to remain anonymous, has been homeless and living on the streets for about three years. “I’m gonna try and find some work, but it’s hard,” the man said. “Sometimes you have to lie to employers. If they find out you’re homeless or in a shelter, they won’t hire you.” The man lost his home when he lost his job. “I hurt my back moving furniture, and then I couldn’t work, so I couldn’t pay my rent,” he said. “I was being paid cash under the table as a mover, so I didn’t have any worker’s compensation.” After staying with some friends for a while, the man started living outdoors. “I started running with some other guys who were living outside, and they sort of showed me the ropes of surviving on the streets,” he said. “Usually I stay in a camp or sleep under a bridge to keep from getting wet when it rains. On a night like last night, it’s no problem, I can just sleep on the dry ground.” The man began staying at the shelter recently to try to find a job. “Once you’re down and out on the streets, it’s really hard to get back up,” he said. “When you don’t have an address or a phone or a car, people don’t want to hire you. You have to really get lucky to get a job.” Such is the vicious cycle of homelessness. Vic Moss, the director of the Emergency Residence Project, has been working against homelessness for about 20 years. Last year, the shelter housed approximately 560 people. The ERP also works to prevent people from having to come to the shelter. “We help about 1,500 people a year avoid coming to the shelter, which is usually done by making a payment to help prevent an eviction or the loss of utilities,” Moss said. “It’s best if we can just prevent people from coming here, because they can’t stay here for long before having to move out again.” The shelter has time limits on short term housing because of the hundreds of people who come looking for help. The capacity is only about 16 people in the short-term housing. “We’re not meeting the need for short-term housing though, because our longer-term housing is full just about every night of the year,” Moss said. “We don’t have room for most of the families that need help. We’re doing a little bit, but there’s still a lot bigger demand than we can handle here.” Those who the ERP is able to assist appreciate the help. “This shelter does a lot of good,” Nunn said. “As long as you don’t take advantage of them, they’ll treat you right.” Homelessness is a growing problem, though. According to Moss, the problem has grown faster than the solution, and the ERP is actually less relevant to the overall issue of homelessness than it was when he began working there. “We used to be able to house only about seven people a night 20 years ago,” he said. “Now we can house a lot more people, but the problem has grown much faster than that, so we’re less likely to have room for a family now than we were back then.” Moss sees the need for the shelter as a symptom of a problem, rather than a solution. “People should understand that, ideally, the shelter wouldn’t be a necessity. It means that a family has lost their home and they’re going to be in another place that’s probably pretty crowded and they have to move out pretty quickly,” he said. “I wish we could go out of business because of a lack of customers.” Another symptom of the problem is the percentage of income that people pay for housing. Many banks and other institutions figure that about 30 percent of a family’s income should go to housing, and the rest to things like food, utilities, transportation expenses, and insurance. “When you have a community in which there are a lot of people paying much more than the 30 percent of their income for housing, you know that there’s going to be a problem,” Moss said. “Maybe there’s a family that’s just making it every month and then something happens. Maybe a muffler falls off the car, and if it’s the whole exhaust system, it can cost more than $400 to replace. That might be the money that they needed for rent that month. And so they have to make a choice; if you don’t have a job then you can’t pay for anything, and you can’t get to your job if you don’t have a car, so they decide to fix the car and then they can’t pay their rent.” Understanding the statistics about how much families spend on housing compared to how much they should be spending on housing is something that Moss thinks would help to alleviate the stigma that the homeless face. “There’s a lot of prejudice against the homeless. Many years ago I saw a column in which a guy said that [the homeless] were either mentally ill or addicted to drugs,” Moss said. “Although most papers wouldn’t state something like that, there are a lot of people that believe this, even though they won’t come out and say it. “What they don’t do is look at the wage structure in the community, and when you do that, you can see where the problem really lies. You don’t have to be a social scientist to understand that you can’t pay more than half of your income for housing.”