Primary Health Care speaks up for the residents of local homeless camps.

Cold Snap

After an abnormally warm autumn, the Des Moines area was suddenly hit by winter weather this past week. Temperatures averaged around 50 degrees throughout October, but suddenly dropped below freezing several nights in a row.

For most Iowa residents, this cold snap wasn’t much of an issue. But there are still many for whom that a change in weather can be disastrous.

Homeless Camps

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness states that there are nearly 3,000 individuals in Iowa who are experiencing homelessness, according to data from the 2017 U.S. census population estimates. This is on the lower end, as far as U.S. states go, but it is still a significant amount of people that lack the basic shelter they need.

For many of these individuals and families, homeless shelters are an option. However, for many other people, there are obstacles that prevent them from using these services. For some, the answer is a homeless camp.

Primary Health Care

Homeless camps are often met with a certain stigma, according to Robert Zomkle, a member of the homeless support services program at Primary Health Care (PHC).

“They judge,” Zlomke said. “People think, ‘Oh well, why don’t they just go out and get a job and their problems would be solved. They’d be able to get into an apartment and live happily ever after.’ And it’s not that simple.”

Zlomke said that many residents of homeless camps struggle finding work due to mental illness or substance use or abuse problems.

“There’s a lot of trauma history for folks who are living outside, and I think one of the common misconceptions is ‘that’s not a home,’” said Shelby Ridley, director of Homeless Support Services at PHC. “It might not be a home that we would think of ideally, but everybody’s home looks different and for some people, the shelter might not be the best option.”

Living Situations

Ridley gave the example of mental illness. For someone with a mental illness, a shelter that is overcrowded and noisy might be worse than sleeping outside. There are also individuals who simply prefer camping to other living situations.

“I can think of one individual who camped, that was his connection to his father,” Zlomke said. “And so, after his father had passed away and he had gotten into housing, for the longest time he would pitch a tent in his apartment, because that was his connection to his dad. And to my knowledge, I think he’s gone back to the camping life because that’s what he knows, that’s just what he’s comfortable with.”

PHC tries to be accommodating to those it helps as much as possible. For some, it’s finding a “creative solution,” for their housing troubles, and for others, it’s an extended stay in a homeless camp.

“The vast majority of people don’t choose to be homeless; they sometimes do make a choice to be in an environment that is more conducive to how they can survive,” Ridley said.

Low Profile

One of the biggest problems facing homeless camps is the issue regarding their legality. There are plenty of camps that are set up in close proximity to even urban areas of Des Moines. Business owners have threatened legal action in the past, claiming trespassing. And with the recent story of Iowa State golfer Celia Barquin Arozamena fresh on Iowa’s mind, there will likely be lasting impacts for these camps.

“We can’t really speak to whether they’re legal or not,” Ridley said. “You know, the city of Des Moines has its own city ordinance, and I think there’s been other articles out there about that. When camps get moved, the city works with us to try and let us know ahead of time.”

Ridley also said that development in Des Moines has affected homeless camps heavily. As more “green space” is lost, it’s harder to find places to set these camps up, which often results in camps being created in more public places. According to Ridley, no one likes when this has to happen.

“I think Rob would agree with me that most people ideally would not like their camps to be seen, and they would like to be in a place that isn’t so public, but that’s not always an option with where we’re at right now,” Ridley said.

Helping Out

PHC visits homeless camps around twice a week, not only to provide much needed supplies, but also to build and maintain relationships with the residents. Having these relationships can help some residents get medical help when needed.

A major way that anyone can help with this issue is called Point in Time. This takes place in January, where volunteers do a 24-hour count of everyone that’s living outside. The count is done in four-hour shifts, and PHC is always looking for volunteers.


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