From the Archives: On the Ped Mall "Problem," August 2013

My Take on the Ped Mall “Problem”

Originally published in August 2013, during my time as Executive Chef of the Shelter House Iowa City, where I was designing a micro-apprenticeship program to help interested clients get the basic skills needed for entry-level work in food service.

Since the City Council recently took up consideration of an ordinance regarding what the press has called “growing complaints about inappropriate behavior downtown” by people who are very broadly referred to as “homeless,” a number of people have been asking my opinion on the matter.  This is likely because of my dual role as a downtown business owner and executive chef at Iowa City’s only homeless shelter.

At Shelter House, my task has been to build what I call a “micro-apprenticeship” program.  Since part of our mission is to feed the clients that Shelter House serves, we have the opportunity to use those meals as teachable moments, and give a few of the clients the opportunity to learn the rudimentary skills necessary to gain entry-level employment in the foodservice industry.

Because of this work, I’ve come to know well several of the people who are “in the trenches” in the fight to end homelessness, as well as quite a few homeless men, women, and children.  I’ve come to learn many of the facts behind homelessness in Iowa City and beyond.  I’ve come to understand a few of the factors that drive it, and a few of the factors that can help to end it.

There are many misinformed people who believe that the ten or twenty “homeless” citizens that frequently loiter on the Ped Mall are just lazy bums.  It’s an easy conclusion to come to if you are the tireless self-employed shopkeeper working 90 hours a week to keep your business afloat in tenuous times while a vagrant snoozes on a bench outside your window.  But when you look past the symptoms and focus on causes, the solutions become more complicated than passing rules that ban sleeping in flower beds or pushing shopping carts past the splash pad.  Those are mere Band-Aid solutions, and treating a symptom that way may hide it, but it won’t cure it.

What’s needed, more than anything, is for all of us to wake up to the realities of mental illness and its all-too-frequent partner, substance abuse.  The plain fact is that more than one in four of us will suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives.  This also means that all of us know people, likely in our own families, who cope with the myriad forms of mental illness.  Despite this, the social stigma surrounding it is severe.  When we hear a person has cancer we are all very sympathetic, but when we hear a person has schizophrenia, our collective lack of understanding leads to fear, which of course leads to anger, hatred, and resentment.

What can we do?  Support the efforts of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (at NAMI.org). Sign up for a class called “Mental Health First Aid.”  Help work toward a day when mental health care is easier to get than, say, a gun.

Even still, this only addresses part of the problem.  The other part isn’t so much about homelessness as it is house-lessness – actual physical structures.  Shelter House is full almost every night.  We turned away, on average, about twenty people each night last month, and that was during the good weather.  In the winter you can imagine how hard it is for our staff to turn a family with kids back out into the cold.

What can we do?  Force ourselves past our knee-jerk NIMBY reactions and support efforts like Housing First and Rapid Re-Housing (plenty of details at EndHomelessness.org).  Using those tools, for example, last month Shelter House’s tireless staff of case managers got eleven households (31 people!) into homes in one day last month.  That is called “treating the cause instead of the symptom,” and it is worthy of support from the city, the county, the state, and you.