By Rachel Vogel Quinn | dsm Contributor

Melissa O’Neil, CEO of Central Iowa Shelter and Services, said operations during the pandemic have been “business as usual.” Dealing with ongoing crises is an essential part of their work. In fact, the nonprofit had to activate their emergency plan four times in 2019.

O’Neil and her team began planning for the COVID-19 pandemic on Feb. 3, before many nonprofits and businesses considered the novel coronavirus to be a threat. Their first task was to rapidly rehouse individuals in the shelter who needed only a security deposit or first month’s rent. The majority of this project was supported by the Polk County Housing Trust Fund.

After implementing their own emergency plan, O’Neil realized that most other shelters in Iowa didn’t have a plan for the pandemic. She reached out to the Wells Fargo Foundation for assistance, who provided $150,000 in funding to help shelters across the state house as many people as possible, as fast as possible.

In addition to the rapid rehousing project, CISS worked with two local hotels to house about 70 people during the pandemic, with another 100 staying at the main shelter amid social distancing rules. Working with Polk County, CISS also set up an isolation shelter in the Youth Hostel at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, where homeless Central Iowans diagnosed with COVID-19, and others who couldn’t stay in their current residences, could recover from the illness.

Although the administrative staff at CISS is working out of the Des Moines Social Club to comply with social distancing, O’Neil tries to make it down to the main location on Mulberry Street nearly every day to comfort residents.

“They are worried about the same things we are,” O’Neil said. “Emotions are running high. Everyone is concerned and scared.”

O’Neil said that individuals with mental health illnesses, a large population at CISS, are easily triggered. One day, a resident body-slammed another for coughing while choking on a glass of water.

The fear is real for the homeless population, who often live with chronic health conditions. Research has shown that they are 1.5 times more likely than the average American to get COVID-19 — and 2.5 times more likely to die from it.

So far, no one at CISS has tested positive for COVID-19. O’Neil wants to keep it that way. The next hurdle is a potential surge in homelessness as the economy worsens. Right now, about seven new people come to CISS every day.

O’Neil said that 25% of Central Iowans aren’t making rent and are on a list to be evicted. On March 20, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a moratorium on evictions through April 30. The federal CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, also prevents new evictions through July 25. O’Neil is worried about the eventual expiration.

“It becomes a very real conversation: How are we going to support those individuals who used to be our donors and who now don’t have an income and could find themselves using our services?” O’Neil said. “What’s going to happen if we don’t find a way to help people keep their housing? I am afraid we are going to have a lot of individuals who get evicted and end up homeless.”

The team at CISS is already working on this problem. Although the pandemic has required a huge effort from the staff, they also see it as a chance to change our community long-term. The state of Iowa will receive between $20 million and $40 million in federal stimulus money to address homelessness. O’Neil calls this their Ice Bucket Challenge.

“How could we use this as an opportunity to end homelessness in Central Iowa?”