Apr 26, 2021 - News

Des Moines' ethical "dance" to tackle homelessness

Encampments under bridges like this one on Grand Avenue jeopardize public safety, city officials say. Photo courtesy of the city of Des Moines

DSM is considering new ways to restrict homeless encampments and assist those who live in them, city staff and advocates told Axios.

Why it matters: Safety is on the line for both those experiencing homelessness and the public.

  • Propane tank explosions and fires under bridges can cause structural damage and close roads, which happened back in 2018.
  • Almost $7.5 million is allocated in the current fiscal year budget for homeless assistance, including emergency shelters, rehousing and street outreach.

Among the ideas:

  • Barricades to prevent people from living under bridges.
  • A $250k mobile hygiene unit equipped with showers, trash receptacles and laundry facilities.

Flashback: An encroachment notice process was developed in 2012 to standardize how DSM handles complaints.

  • It allows those experiencing homeless an opportunity to appeal to an administrative law judge before their camps are removed.
  • The city works with advocacy groups to offer aid to those affected before removing camps.

But problems still persist.

  • DSM spent $54,104 and more than 600 hours of city staff time on camp cleanups last year.
  • Debris complaints and conflicts with the public have risen, particularly from camps that are sometimes a few feet from trails.
  • Site cleanups are often a short-term solution because those experiencing homeless frequently have nowhere else to go and simply build new camps in another location.

What they’re saying: City council members are trying to balance humanitarian aid with broader public safety policies, Melissa O’Neil, CEO of Central Iowa Shelter & Services told Jason.

  • "It's a dance we have to make as a society, both ethically and morally," she said.

What’s next: New policy and program proposals could come before city council for further review in coming months.


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