Taking Fire From All Sides

The picture is of a dumpster corral in Des Moines Iowa near one of the universities in a suburban community and the home to a gentleman who could not find housing.  Not the kind of neighborhood most people would think of a man experiencing homeless squatting in a dumpster corral.  Homeless outreach has already been out and the individual is a veteran, but resistant to services.  There are mental health issues, and he does not want to leave. 

Working to reduce poverty is one of the hardest jobs in the United States, and in communities that add politics and culture war obstacles to the mix makes the job nearly impossible. That is the best summary of doing social justice work to eliminate poverty in Iowa.  A community organizer (or the less political charged word of advocate) has to overcome the difficulties of working to build a community that are all heading in the same direction, but then there are these unbelievably backward state government in Des Moines who only seem to add roadblocks.  Two recent example of unnecessary roadblocks and frankly just stupidity is the signing into law a bill that ended the ability for a local community to pass laws preventing discriminatory advertising and the cancellation of extended unemployment while we are still suffering the effects of a pandemic.  

Three larger communities passed laws consistent with the Fair Housing Act that prevented landlords from using the phrase “No Section 8” or more accurately “No Housing Choice Voucher holders accepted” in their advertising for potential renters. It is an attack on home rule in the three communities who had previously passed a ban on landlords using the racist “No Section 8” language in their advertising.  The law is racist because it stigmatizes those with low incomes from certain housing, and minority populations are disproportionately low income when measured against the total population.  The other extremely harmful government action is the cancelling of federal extended unemployment early as passed by the American Rescue Act in March 2021. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds has decided, without any factual data, that generous unemployment benefits are keeping her constituents from seeking gainful employment.  She has cut off the federal additional unemployment compensation in June while half of the surrounding states will receive those funds through September.  The New York Times reviewed data from Missouri and found that ending unemployment early does not lead to large scale returns to low wage jobs.

There are so many strategies to reduce poverty including expanding public benefits or providing a universal basic wage or a negative earned income tax credit or adding entitlements, and it takes all ones energy to get community leaders and those living in poverty to focus on any strategy.  Then to have government show up and additional barriers to the struggle like racist policies or fact-free policy decision or government acting as unforgiving punisher for bad behavior just makes the job of working on solutions that much more difficult.   It is taxing to have to fight for justice against what seems like the whole world.  It is tough to organize people who are struggling with basic life sustaining functions like housing, food and sleep while the government is passing laws or changing policy that harms low income people. Then getting everyone on the same page for a goal, only to find out that there is an even bigger struggle against government officials operating in an unscientific and damaging manner can seem like the advocates are taking fire from all sides.  These are intelligent well educated people who are acting purely out of self-interest to reinforce and amplify fears that exist in society.  The only reason for acting against the interest of your own citizens is to appeal to a fringe element of the voters who come out for a primary.  They seem to have no concern for the good of the community or the majority of the population who either do not vote or voted for the other side.  Every day is trench warfare sticking it to the other side when it is often hard to figure out friend or foe. 

Everyone knows that landlords use the “No Section 8” phrase to discriminate against potential tenants. Source of income discrimination strikes at the heart of the Fair Housing Act, and will surely draw lawsuits from the fair housing community and hopefully from the federal government.  What possible justification can someone have for rejecting a federal housing program? In fact, many landlords are thanking their stars that they have a tenant with a guaranteed source of rent during a pandemic.  There are so many who lost their jobs and cannot afford the rent. They cannot be evicted due to CDC guidance and common sense.  The Section 8 landlords receives the federal portion of the rent like clockwork at the beginning of every month no matter what the state of the economy, and if the tenant loses their job the landlord gets more of the rent from the feds.

The extended unemployment is entirely paid by the American Rescue Act out of federal coffers so why is Iowa and 24 other state officials rejecting these funds? How are Iowans going to feel when their neighbors in surrounding states will still be eligible for extended unemployment but because of a decision by a group of vindictive governors they will not get those added benefits?  How will the worker who specialized in event planning or a travel related business and saw their business disappear last year feel when their governor decided that they do not deserve extended federal unemployment because they have not found a job yet? The pandemic is not over and only 43.7% of the residents of Iowa are fully vaccinated causing many to fear for their safety if they return to work, which dropped 32% over the last few weeks. It does not help the 30,000 Iowans currently unemployed and the thousands of others who have given up finding work to say that unemployment is “low.” Studies have shown that being on unemployment assistance does not discourage work and even encourages people to take jobs that pay less than they received in the past.  

Other stupid examples of government acting against its own taxpayers in Iowa include the new voting restrictions signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds which shortens the early voting period for Iowa and the sudden dropping of COVID restrictions in early February well before the rests of the country.  Reynolds never acted in a leadership capacity against COVID which placed Iowa regularly in the top 20 states with regard to cases and deaths when adjusted for population.  This February the dropping of all COVID restrictions took everyone by surprise especially those serving the elderly and fragile populations like homeless people because it came without much guidance or planning. Early February was well before most of the population even the frail were even offered a vaccine.  The state also adopted something called “Constitutional carry” which eliminated most restrictions on carrying a concealed weapon. This of course is exactly what we need in the middle of a pandemic, while there is a near total shut down of the mental health system and the economy teetering is the best time ever to allow concealed firearms. Iowa elected officials decided this was the perfect time to allow a bunch of masked people suffering PTSD from the horrific last year to freely carry weapons in their coats with bank tellers and 7-Eleven clerks worried what they will face at work everyday.

So maybe they have run out of things to govern because Iowa is a hidden oasis of rainbows and peaceful co-existence. It might be exactly like the Field of Dreams and people are flocking there from miles around because they “built it” (whatever that means). Well, 11.2% of the population lives below the poverty level and none of the bills passed or restrictions removed are going to help the impoverished. There are still people sleeping rough in tents in the larger metropolitan areas and they are not doing that willingly in order to be first in line for the limited seating ball park to watch the ghosts playing baseball.  Iowa has a relatively low unemployment rate, but the pandemic did expose the horrible working conditions in Iowa for the meat processing plant workers.  Still no legislation improving the working conditions in one of Iowa’s largest industries. There are still around 150,000 Iowans without health insurance or about 4.7% of the population, and one in four women in Iowa are previous victim of domestic violence.  So it seems like there are plenty of problems to address while the legislature and executive branch are distracted with solving problems that do not exist.  

There Are Some Good Ideas Coming Out of Iowa

One of the advancements in Iowa that could be replicated throughout the United States is their policies and practices in Des Moines around getting the long term homeless into housing and keeping them there.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development has over the last 12 years forced the local communities to go to a Central Intake model and prioritize those who have many barriers to housing.  They have focused resources on Permanent Supportive Housing which in many communities is neither permanent nor in many communities is it supportive.  There is very little guidance on how to make these programs successful and not turn into a revolving door for the most difficult to serve.  Some communities have constructed housing blacklists of people who they evicted and have no possibility of returning to supportive housing or they make the screening criteria so difficult that Dick Van Dyke and Michelle Obama are pretty much the only people who qualify.  Des Moines has completely revamped its system to strip away all barriers to entry into their housing with services programs.   Any program that wants public, and some private, funding must agree to accept clients only through the centralized intake.

The most important innovation is the desire to keep people in the housing so they do not show back up in the system a couple of months down the line.  The Continuum of Care wants to significantly reduce evictions and the quiet eviction of just forcing residents to leave these programs.  They have worked with all the groups to go through a restorative justice type approach to infractions of the rules.  Instead of using the codes of conduct included in leases as a way to discharge someone from housing, they work with the individual to show them the consequences of their actions. Programs are required to have operating policies that recognize relapse is part of recovery and cannot make the punishment for working through the behavioral health issues associated with addiction being forced to live on the streets for a time. Des Moines continuum has put in place a policy that requires providers to allow a household facing expulsion from the housing program to appeal the decision to someone other than their case manager.  It is meant to be such a high bar that very few providers will option for that course of action, and it has been remarkably successful. Anawim Housing, the continuum’s permanent supportive housing provider, incorporates into their appeal process a volunteer moderator from outside the agency.  They use the appeal process as an opportunity to “reset” not to evict. They also bring together on a weekly basis, the program residents to learn from each other.  For example, they show that having a guest over has an impact with noise and other problems for their immediate next door neighbor. They are one of the few communities to dramatically reduce the recidivism rate among those who have long histories of homelessness.  

It takes a toll on an advocate’s mental well-being when they work every day to try to provide a hand up to those struggling in a conservative state and there is someone from government working to beat people with a stick.  At the end of the day, this only creates new avenues for people to fall further away from the American dream. It is tough going to into the ornate state capitals to talk about solutions to poverty and all the person across the table wants to talk about is punishing people for bad behavior.   When did solving problems drop out of the description of any legislator and instead they are solely focused on raising campaign dollars? What are they campaigning for except to keep a job?  It is sad when an advocate puts in long hours getting proof of housing to funders and they meet with an elected official who have these glazed look in their eyes when as the advocates begin talking about housing or poverty.  They seem to be responsive to those who can deliver campaign cash and everyone else is just there for the show. It just makes the advocate feel like they are taking fire from all sides and have a mountain to overcome.