After Mingo resident Michelle Smith requested almost three-and-a-half months ago if the Jasper County Board of Supervisors would allow volunteers to facilitate temporary shelters at county-owned buildings during times of extreme weather, the governing body finally reached its decision Tuesday morning.
Instead of outright saying “yes” or “no,” or putting the motion to a vote, the two supervisors directed Smith’s request to Jody Eaton, the CEO of Central Iowa Community Services (CICS). They also suggested Smith utilize other resources that may be better suited to resolve the issue.
Supervisor Brandon Talsma was not present at the meeting, leaving Denny Carpenter and Doug Cupples to explain how they want to help those in need but suggested a county building may not be the best place to host a center for extreme hot or cold weather. Smith preferred to not call the facility a shelter.
If the supervisors had agreed to the proposal, Smith said the center would operate at no cost to the county and could utilize the county’s liability insurance. This kind of facility would primarily house Jasper County’s homeless populations for a short period of time.
Cupples referred Smith to CICS and believed a temporary shelter or “something to that effect is being developed,” though the vice-chair of the supervisors did not provide any confirmation or further details at the time of the meeting. The supervisors, Cupples added, are not mental health experts.
Smith, who is also chairperson of the Jasper County Democratic Party, said a person who is homeless does not automatically mean he or she has a mental illness or vice versa. That associated stigma, she said, “needs to stop.”
Although places like the newly opened Connections Peer Support Drop-In Center in Newton do provide a safe space for individuals, Smith said that building is only open five days a week for a certain amount of time and is reserved more for people living with a mental illness.
“This could be (for when) it’s negative 50 and your furnace breaks and you don’t have enough money to pay for a hotel for a couple days while you’re waiting to get money to fix your furnace or something like that,” Smith said, adding she respects the supervisors’ vote.
Still, Smith lamented it had taken so long for the supervisors to re-address the issue brought up in August. She was under the impression the supervisors would contact her ahead of time when a decision was made, but instead she had to request a time on the board’s agenda to know the official vote. Cupples could not recall the specifics of the informal agreement.
“None of us up here want anybody to be in a situation where they’re suffering, but the reality is we have a ton — there are a lot — of resources for people, to someone that either does or doesn’t have a mental illness that (is homeless)…Those resources, they’re there (and) they’re available to reach out to,” Cupples said, motioning Eaton for confirmation.
Interested in the idea, Eaton seemed willing to collaborate with Smith and her proposal. Jasper County is full of human service providers to create a network of sorts for a project like this, but a county building may not be the right place for it, Eaton said,.
“I know from experience that people won’t come to see me that maybe will go to another option or an offsite (location),” she said. “I wonder if we can’t all get together. I’d be very happy to meet.”
Playing “devil’s advocate,” Smith developed a scenario in which the day after the meeting it was forecasted to be -50 degrees in Newton. She asked if supervisors could name a place where people living out in the elements could go to after the libraries are closed.
Cupples answered, “Well, we spend ... a couple million bucks a year on these resources to help people. And so, again, I think Jody was just giving you an invite to talk and to have this conversation. And I think — I know what my opinion is — that something like that is definitely a good thing, but I want them to do it, Michelle. I want our people to be the ones in charge of it.”
Because when Smith or other volunteers become in charge of something that’s not directly tied or organized through staff, Cupples said it becomes more than what the county can handle. He would want a center to be operated by the county’s own department heads. Smith asked if the supervisors could set a deadline to guarantee a center is created.
“I’m not guaranteeing anything,” Carpenter said.
Smith was concerned if supervisors didn’t set a deadline then there might be another situation like last year’s polar vortex, which prompted some businesses to temporarily open their doors to people unable to find shelter from the extreme freeze. A set plan in place, Smith argued, could benefit the people living in Jasper County.
Eaton reasoned that Jasper County’s additional human services resources could be brought together to find a solution. Cupples said the supervisors want to take care of the citizens.
“But we have people and resources to do that and we’re asking you to work with them to do so,” Cupples said. “That’s where I’m at, Michelle … You have my permission to work with them.”
Before she left, Smith wanted to acknowledge “the vulnerable citizens” of the county by quoting Cory Booker, a New Jersey senator and presidential candidate:
“I see you, I love you.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org