The local YMCA is trying to do its part to fill the housing void for the very needy by going back to the organization's roots: providing housing to more-marginalized populations who struggle with health issues and unemployment. Cushioned between an overpass and trendy West End Architectural Salvage on Southwest 9th Street, the YMCA Supportive Housing Complex is the first of its kind nationally.
The three-story modern building provides permanent supportive housing to 140 people in the heart of the downtown area, with $550 apartments that are either completely or mostly subsidized through government tax credits and YMCA assistance. The idea is that you take people who are facing housing barriers like illness or homelessness, get them into permanent housing, and then surround them with supportive services. Here, they can look for work and learn to live on their own. More than half of the YMCA residents work full-time or part-time jobs, while the rest are on disability, looking for work, or retired. Seventy-four people are currently on a wait list for apartments.
Emily Osweiler, the executive director of the campus, says this is a place to call home for people who can't afford traditional housing. "A lot of people might think the typical Y is a gym and a swim, or something like that, but we are so much more than that," she says of the facility, which opened three years ago. "Everyone deserves a home, and here they don't have to go through all of these steps to be housed."
The rooms have a bed, sink, stove top, microwave, refrigerator, and bathroom. When tenants arrive, they get their own care package with a place setting, silverware, plunger, can opener, toilet paper, mug, water bottle, dish soap, and sponge—all items you'd need for a new home. There's a pantry for people to get food, and buses for trips to the grocery store. Many of the people living here don't know what it takes to live alone. Some have bounced from city to city looking for work. Others have been hampered by injuries or mental illness. "I've had grown men in tears telling me they've never had air conditioning," Osweiler says. "They're excited about leaving their toothbrush by the sink."
Carey Olson, a 50-year-old Cedar Rapids native, is one of the residents who has found in the supportive-housing complex a real community. He organizes barbecues in the courtyard, a little green space where people maintain community gardens or toss a football around. Several years ago, he fell off a roof while doing construction work and has struggled to find work since. "It was either come here or live out on the streets," he says, leaning back in his room filled with furniture and televisions he's collected from previous tenants. "With my knee and with all my medical conditions going on, winter around here would not have been good to live under the bridges. And I really like the idea of having my own room, my own bathroom, and being able to cook."
Deep poverty still remains in Des Moines. There are still homeless shelters, emergency shelters, and transitional homes for those seeking permanent supportive housing like at the YMCA. But those programs can be limited. Just this summer, the city of Des Moines evicted homeless camps along the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers for the third time, citing health and safety risks. Central Iowa Shelter and Services provides a home for these people for 90 days, but then they are back on their own for another 90 days. In the new and bigger shelter, there are so many people that some sleep in chairs—and that's not even in an extreme weather situation. These Des Moines residents aren't looking for floor-to-ceiling windows, but for a safe, affordable space to call their own.