COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa --- Daniel Lafferty, who is 60 years old, a U.S. Navy veteran, and experiencing homelessness, said he takes the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. Lafferty said he had no problem getting the Pfizer vaccine from the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa in Omaha a few months ago.
“I grew up in the ’60s, so I remember mumps, small pox and diphtheria,” Lafferty said. “Vaccines are a life saver.”
A native of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Lafferty has experienced homelessness off-and-on for 20 years. Amid the pandemic, he arrived at New Visions Homeless Services in Council Bluffs and entered the nonprofit organization’s Veterans Transitional Living Program in September 2020.
While the COVID-19 pandemic drew attention to the safety and security of long-term care facilities and schools, the population without permanent housing became even more vulnerable than it already was.
The annual federal report on homelessness, published in March, showed 2,467 Iowans experienced homelessness in 2020, a 14% increase over the previous year.
Workers at homeless shelters throughout Iowa had mixed responses as to whether the pandemic increased the numbers in their areas. But they all agreed on one thing: the pandemic significantly changed the way their shelters operate.
In the early stages of the pandemic in March 2020, the Warming Shelter in downtown Sioux City shuttered its doors a month earlier than scheduled over concerns that the virus could spread quickly in its tight quarters. On Nov. 1, the emergency shelter opened again to ensure no one freezes to death during the coldest winter months.
"We're doing everything we can to prevent an outbreak," Tessa Shanks, the shelter's director, said in December. "Everybody's doing their part in what's necessary to keep the doors open through the season," which runs through April 30.
Homelessness in Sioux City is on the rise amid the pandemic, said Stephanie Pickinpaugh, the city's coordinated entry system manager. She said homelessness can happen to anybody living paycheck to paycheck.
“It varies from individuals being asked to leave a family member’s home, either due to one of them having COVID or the fear of COVID. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of individuals in the emergency shelter and accessing prevention efforts to stay housed,” said Pickinpaugh, who said she believes job loss and decreased wages are also contributing factors.
Pickinpaugh said local efforts are focused on moving people into permanent places to live.
“Currently, the continuum of care, either through HUD or Emergency Solutions Grants, has rapid rehousing programs, transitional housing. Everything comes through coordinated entry, which is our role in the community, and then they fill their beds or their spots from there. Community Action Agency has programs that fill from our list,” she said.
A western Iowa border city that often shares a homeless population with Omaha, Nebraska, Council Bluffs has two shelters: New Visions Homeless Services and Micah House. Officials at both shelters said they do not feel the pandemic has caused an increase in the number of people seeking help at their facilities--- at least not yet.
What the pandemic has done, so far they said, is “drastically” change how they operated.
New Visions President and CEO Bob Sheehan said in non-pandemic times, New Visions Homeless Services serves as more than a place where those experiencing homelessness and hunger could find shelter and get a warm meal. Its programs include food programs, permanent housing and veterans programs, and a 24-hour emergency shelter for men without permanent housing.
Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the dangerously cold temperatures the region experienced this winter, the New Visions team had to use their space in a different way.
For example, the cafeteria was typically used for overflow overnight, with mats put down for beds and removed in the morning for meals. It became a permanent sleeping space because of the pandemic.
Since the dining area has been closed, take-out meals and food pantries were provided outside the building. Due to social distancing needs and in order to provide quarantine space, the shelter reduced the number of overnight guests to 90 men per night, compared to 130 to 150 during a normal winter.
“Every day was a new challenge, there was no regularity to anything,” Sheehan said. “It was ‘What are we going to deal with this week?’ one week to the next.”
Less than half a mile down the road from New Visions, the staff at Micah House, an emergency shelter for families and single women needing safety and support services, has dealt with similar circumstances.
The facility’s lower level has 23 private bedrooms that can accommodate families of up to 10 people. The shelter is structured so families can live together and receive individual case management services to help them get back on their feet and eventually find permanent housing. The facility’s second floor houses the women’s shelter with 10 rooms and 26 beds.
Executive Director Jaymes Sime said it is not unusual for Micah House to be at capacity with a wait list of people hoping to stay there. Pre-pandemic, the average stay for a family was 30 to 45 days. During that time, staff would help families with resources and plans so they could find stable, permanent housing.
As of last week, at least two families had been at the shelter since October. In addition, the demand for food from the shelter’s pantries has “skyrocketed,” Sime said.
“Housing instability is a real thing,” Sime said, “and we were overwhelmed pre-pandemic.”
Sime said the pandemic changed how Micah House operated in numerous ways.
“It changed how we structured meal times. We had to stop offsite volunteers from coming in. We had to stop receiving donations that weren’t mission critical,” he said. “We were constantly taking temperatures, and developing and looking at our quarantine policies to fit with health guidelines. We spent a lot of time working with (Pottawattamie) County Public Health for testing and quarantine procedures. There were a lot of local resources available to us, but the difficult part was how everything was changing so frequently early on.”
Sime said Micah House reduced the number of guests in the women’s shelter, keeping four beds empty for quarantine and isolation.
The pandemic’s impact has not just been felt by those experiencing homelessness; shelter workers have felt it, too.
Central Iowa Shelter & Services in Des Moines shut down its volunteer program during the first year of the pandemic, said Melissa Gradischnig, the shelter’s volunteer and donations coordinator. Gradischnig said created a lot more work for the shelter’s roughly 80 staff members.
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” she said.
Gradischnig said the Des Moines shelter actually saw a decrease in guests over the past year. She said that, along with some help from community partners and a dedicated janitorial staff, enabled them to take public health precautions to keep visitors and staff as safe as possible. As a result, Gradischnig said the shelter never had a COVID outbreak, and experienced no more than “literally just a handful” of COVID cases.
“We rocked it,” she said. “We’ve been very lucky.”
New Visions saw a serious bout of the virus in September 2020 which affected 20 people at the shelter. Two were hospitalized. Thankfully, Sheehan said, there were no deaths. The two men hospitalized eventually came back.
Another challenge came with trying to quarantine a population whose tendencies kept them moving from one place to another. Over the course of a particularly rough six-week period in which several people had been exposed to the virus, New Visions faced quarantining 70 people.
“After a month, it was tense,” Sheehan said. “There was nowhere they could go and cabin fever would set in. We got them a lot of games and cards, things they could tinker with. But it was stressful.”
Lafferty, the homeless Navy veteran, said he has played it safe during the pandemic, taking precautions like wearing a mask and washing his hands frequently. To him, social distancing is “no big deal.”
What does bother Lafferty, he said, is how often he hears from other veterans experiencing homelessness who do not want to receive the vaccine — especially since, he noted, most received other vaccinations when they entered the military.
“To each his own,” he said. “But don’t come near me.”
The Journal's Dolly Butz contributed to this story.