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Record amount of homeless found sleeping outside during winter street count

The director of housing services at Waypoint said said they found 19 people sleeping outside during the annual count.
Published: Feb. 15, 2021 at 6:09 AM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - After dangerous temperatures this weekend and cold weather sticking around, Waypoint wants to remind people to say something if they see someone outside.

On January 27th, Waypoint conducted an annual street count in Cedar Rapids. They said they found more people sleeping outside than ever before.

The director of housing services at Waypoint, J`nae Peterman, said they found 19 people sleeping outside, and that’s the highest number she’s seen in her several years of working at Waypoint.

For comparison, the non-profit said they found three people during the winter count of 2020.

Peterman said the big jump is most likely because of the derecho, the pandemic, and the lack of affordable housing available in the community. She said right now with the eviction moratorium extended until March, affordable housing stock is limited.

She said during the count, they found people under bridges or just walking around trying to stay warm, but the majority were found sleeping in their vehicles. Peterman said for some who has no other choice of shelter, a car is the best option.

“So if you’re outside, yes, that’s absolutely the best option to sleep in your car for you if you’re in an outdoor area, because you do have the ability to run your car here and there,” Peterman said. “We have heard of individuals pulling their cars into car washes because car washes are heated at night. It’s not a safe idea obviously because of carbon monoxide poisoning and if you choose to run your car and fall asleep or something like that.”

Peterman says the community needs to find more affordable housing to help fight homelessness, saying shelters are not long-term solutions.

With the frigid temperatures, Willis Dady says its overflow shelter is at capacity almost every night the past month. They also took part in the winter street count.

Wes Shirley, the street outreach coordinator for Willis Dady, said since helping with the count, he thinks daily about how people survive.

He told me this year, they found the majority of people sleeping inside cars while it was six degrees outside.

He says it’s common to find people sleeping under bridges or in their cars while trying to stay warm, and while cars are good option for people if they have no other choice, it makes it harder for them to spot people who might need help.

Shirley said its difficult because they can’t check every residential street, which is why he thinks the number of people sleeping outside was likely higher.

He said when they find someone who doesn’t want to go to a shelter, they try to give that person things like a sleeping bag, tent, food, water, and hand warmers.

“Shelters tend to be a little chaotic, especially in this kind of weather, and so I think there are people who struggle with mental illness who would rather take their chances against the physical elements than to kind of deal with the triggering of being in a very chaotic situation,” Shirley said.

He said if you see someone outside and are concerned, check on them, and contact the Willis Dady Homeless shelter at 319-366-7999. From there, Waypoint and Willis Dady can help individuals with housing and long-term support.

If someone is in crisis or needs immediate assistance and cannot make contact with the shelter, individuals can call the Police Department at 319-286-5491.

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