- Associated Press - Monday, July 14, 2014

The Des Moines Register. July 13, 2014.

Homeless tent camps are not the solution

Des Moines has invested a lot of public and private money in providing shelter and assistance for the homeless. This includes temporary shelters, transition housing, public housing and rent subsidies. Yet there are cracks in this system and a small percentage of the homeless population falls through those cracks.

You can see some of them camped along the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.

These are people who have made it clear they do not want to live in any of the institutional shelter options available to them. They prefer to live by themselves in isolation. The problem is these living arrangements pose health and safety hazards to the homeless occupants and to the public safety workers who are called in on occasion to put out fires or rescue accident victims.

In response to complaints from the public, and out of concern for the safety of the homeless, the city has repeatedly sought to evict the campers. Each time the city has met resistance from some camp occupants and their advocates. Legal disputes have been playing out for more than a year in administrative proceedings, and an appeal is pending before the Iowa Court of Appeals.

It is hard to imagine the courts will ultimately force the city to sit on its hands while people put down permanent roots on public property to live in makeshift shelters that are not in compliance with building and fire safety codes and lack water and sanitary services.

If that is the outcome of these cases, then the law should be changed. That outcome would not be in the interest of the homeless, public safety workers or the public at large. In the face of such an exception, how could the city justify enforcement of zoning regulations or building and fire codes for other residents?

If the city is ultimately allowed to order the evacuation of the homeless camps, that should not be the end of the story, however.

Every effort should be made to help this homeless population find temporary shelter, a place to store their belongings and connections with social services. City officials have done that in the past, and they insist they would do the same in the future. That message should be clearly delivered to homeless campers who may fear being forced into even worse circumstances.

One thing public and private groups have learned in working on homeless issues is that there will never be enough temporary shelter space. As soon as new shelters are built or existing ones are enlarged, they will be filled. The only solution is to reduce the need for temporary shelter.

The goal of the most successful public and private housing assistance efforts is to help the homeless make a transition to permanent housing. That requires assistance in finding employment, health care, mental health services, transportation and child care.

Meeting those needs is especially challenging for those who fall into the category of the chronically homeless. But the effort should be made. The alternative of living in a makeshift camp by the river is not a reasonable, or humane, option.

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Iowa City Press-Citizen. July 13, 2014.

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