Every year, dozens of Iowans experiencing homelessness die on our streets.
It isn’t a pleasant image to conjure. It’s uncomfortable for many of us to acknowledge, especially given that Des Moines is consistently named one of the best or most affordable cities to live.
A recent list ranked Des Moines as the third-best U.S. city for high salaries and low costs of living. Despite this high praise, many of our neighbors continue to fall through the cracks.
One of Anawim’s roles is to fill in the cracks in our housing system so that people experiencing homelessness have access to stable housing—so that fewer people die under bridges and in campsites. Our programs offer a permanent solution for the most vulnerable in our community.
In 2019, Anawim served 386 adults and children in our housing programs. Eight passed away—many due to chronic illness or conditions exacerbated by the physical and emotional hardship of homelessness. Experiencing homelessness takes a toll on one’s health, and those who have lived unsheltered face increased mortality rates. Studies show that homelessness can shorten one’s life expectancy by 20 years.
It is never easy to lose a participant. Our staff prioritizes building strong relationships with each person we serve. We visit them in their homes, assist them in the community, and welcome them into our office on Fridays for peer support programming. These relationships are built on trust and respect—honoring the humanity in each person who comes through our doors.
Because of this relationship, Anawim staff is often the first one on the scene—finding individuals who have died in their homes or helping the families of our tenants navigate their loss.
“Death is part of this job,” says Dan McBee, Program Manager with Anawim Housing. McBee has worked with individuals experiencing homelessness for over 12 years. “If we are doing our job, we expect it. We know it’s a possibility.”
To qualify for one of Anawim’s Permanent Supportive Housing programs, participants must be experiencing long-term homelessness and have a disabling condition. We work closely with Centralized Intake at Primary Health Care in a coordinated approach to addressing homelessness. During the Centralized Intake process, community members complete an assessment that screens based on vulnerability.
Those who score highest—who are most at risk and most in need of housing—are referred to Anawim.
This level of vulnerability comes with poor health outcomes, increased substance use, mental illness, and physical disabilities. As McBee said, if we are doing it right, if we’re housing those who most need housing, death will be a part of our job. Our consolation is knowing that these individuals didn’t die alone and on our streets. They died with dignity, in their homes, and in relationship with people who know and care about their well-being.
At Anawim, we believe housing is a human right. We believe home is everything. We also believe that everyone deserves to have a dignified end to life. Our supportive housing allows people to lead happier, healthier lives. It also provides a safe, compassionate place for people to die with dignity.
Both are integral to our mission and to building a stronger community for every person who calls Des Moines home.
Article written by Hannah Landgraf - Anawim Housing.