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New study identifies barriers for homeless Iowans finding shelter in the metro

The study interviewed 37 Polk County residents who have experienced homelessness.

DES MOINES, Iowa — A new study from Homeward Iowa and Drake University is shining a light on homelessness in the metro.

The Unsheltered Des Moines study surveyed more than 150 metro residents who are currently or have been homeless, 37 of which shared their stories and experiences living on the streets in interviews with the research team.

Researchers say these sorts of firsthand accounts are often missing from discussions about homelessness, especially when the time comes to make policy decisions.

"We need to keep talking to folks who are unsheltered, who are living this life, who have firsthand experience and who know kind of what the holes in the system are and what they need to overcome," said Elizabeth Tablert, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Drake University.

Using the information from those interviews, researchers found several consistent barriers for people trying to get shelter. One example: people already struggling to survive often didn't have the resources to research their options.

"The energy that takes often takes front seat to a person's daily life, as opposed to, you know, trying to figure out how to utilize a system that has failed them over and over again," Talbert said.

The study lays out several recommendations for ways that Polk County can help address homelessness, such as by utilizing warming centers as overflow shelters.

But one of the biggest wasn't much of a surprise for advocates.

"One of the long-term recommendations talks about permanent supportive housing and what that looks like. So I think it highlighted things that we suspected, but also needed that support that this is important for us in our community," said Angie Arthur, Executive Director of Homeward Iowa.

And the people who need that housing might not be who you would expect.

One woman who shared her story said that she and her boyfriend, who she lived with in a tent, both worked multiple jobs and still struggled to find shelter.

"Everybody thinks 'We're homeless because we chose that.' Sometimes that's not the issue. It just so happened that our money just wasn't there because of our job being so stupid. And now we're back on the streets. We didn't choose that. We don't choose to have two jobs and still have no money," the participant said.

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