Advocacy group says dispersing homeless population leading to increasing mortality rate

Published: Sep. 21, 2023 at 10:32 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - A homeless advocacy group said changes need to be made after a homeless person was found dead in the Cedar River.

53-year-old Kevin Finch’s body was found in Cedar Rapids on August 20th, near the Ellis Harbor boat ramp. The Cedar Rapids Police Department has declined to give any specifics about how he died, or how his body ended up in the river. It only said his death was due to natural causes and that it wasn’t investigating.

TV9 has been able to confirm Finch was homeless. We also learned he was a graduate of Bondurant Farrar in 1989. He had been living in Cedar Rapids for at least a year and requested some type of housing aid.

It didn’t take long walking around Green Square to find someone from the homeless community who knew Kevin Finch.

“There are many people who know him or have known his story,” said one lady who didn’t want to be named.

Finch’s death was something she worried about because of her own interactions with the police.

“My primary experience with police is ‘go away, you can’t be here’ and ‘you’ll have to go somewhere else,’” she said.

“For me, any amount of homelessness is too much,” said the Chief Policy Officer for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Steve Berg.

Cedar Rapids paid the NATEH $23,000 to help identify how the city can better handle its growing homeless population. This year, Waypoint Services found 123 people who are homeless. That is up from 107 last year and nearly 100 more than before the pandemic started. Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell called the rising numbers one of the “number one concerns of the city.”

“The goal must always be to help people out of that situation,” said Mayor O’Donnell.

In November, the city notified people living in an encampment south of the New Bohemia District that they needed to leave. On December 1st it bulldozed the encampment to move all their belongings.

“They sweep the park, they are here primarily to get people to move on,” said the person we spoke to in Green Square. “They don’t want you anywhere other than a public sidewalk.”

The nonprofit the city hired said pushing people out of those living on sidewalks, under bridges, or in encampments wasn’t the solution because they get further from the caseworkers who can help. Without that help, the outcome can be dire.

“One reason we think death among homeless people is three to four times that of housed people is just that,” said Berg. “They need help, they need treatment, and they can’t get it because it’s not accessible.”

We reached out to the Cedar Rapids Police Department and the City of Cedar Rapids Housing Services Department to discuss its handling of the homeless population. Both departments refused to speak with us. Cedar Rapids Police Information Officer Mike Battien did respond with written statements:

What specific training do CRPD officers undergo when it comes to handling the homeless population?

Officers receive 40 hours of Academy training focused on Crisis Intervention Techniques. This training provides skills needed to de-escalate situations — and is often applied in response to calls regarding our friends, neighbors, relatives, and other community members who do not have safe and stable housing. Many of these people experience several forms of crisis or needs at once, like those regarding mental health, medical needs, financial insecurity, substance abuse — and other factors that may diminish a person’s ability or desire to obtain housing. Every year, officers re-train many skills to ensure they maintain core competencies, including sessions meant to help officers better respond to and provide care for individuals in crisis. Patrol officers receive regular updates from nonprofit agencies that work with people who are experiencing homelessness. They also make frequent, direct contact with affected individuals in every corner of our City.

During police contacts, officers often offer assistance, ranging from information regarding available assistance — to arranging for transportation to locations that can provide safety and care. An additional layer of service is available through the CRPD Mental Health Team (MHT). The MHT is equipped with additional tools to support those most in need with longer-term assistance. MHT is a collaborative effort by CRPD and Foundation 2. Officers are encouraged to offer the services of MHT, and the individual experiencing crisis must be open to receiving support from the MHT.


Have any of these trainings changed since the National Alliance to Endless Homelessness visited?

The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) provided insight into opportunities to improve programs and policies throughout the community. Shelter and social-services providers; medical, mental health, and substance abuse care providers; law enforcement agencies; religious organizations; funding agencies; and City and County elected officials and staff attended a two-day event in June focused on making informed decisions and recommendations to improve challenges surrounding homelessness. One key takeaway from the visit included the acknowledgment that all of these agencies provide positive individual programs — with a highlighted need to improve coordination between the programming and agencies. Other takeaways included recommendations for redirecting interventions toward the goal of housing people quickly and then following up with supportive services to provide the individuals with stability. The Police Department’s training matches these recommendations, including the goal of helping individuals experiencing homelessness find housing options quickly and making connections to supportive services. We are committed to working with the City and partnering agencies to end homelessness and will continue to train our officers in alignment with these goals.


Having this many unhoused individuals is a new issue for Cedar Rapids. What are some of the problems officers are encountering?

The CRPD has been working with individuals experiencing homelessness and other crises — as well as non-profits and care agencies providing related support — for many years. The increase in the population of people living outdoors in public and private spaces is a concern for all involved.

The Joint Communications Agency takes in calls related to this challenge every day, from all over the community. These include calls from property owners to remove individuals trespassing on private property and calls from individuals who find their ability to safely enjoy public areas is hindered by incidents including illegal drug use, alcohol overconsumption, escalated confrontations, public defecation, and others.

Our officers work to strike a balance between enforcing the law and showing compassion for the challenges faced by those in crisis. While these interactions can sometimes be stressful, the majority of interactions between our Police Department and those experiencing homelessness remain polite, with many resulting in a positive exchange.


We talked about police telling homeless individuals to leave is something advocates have said is a large contributor to why homeless individuals die: moving them away from resources, case workers, and into areas where they won’t be seen -- is there something that police are doing to address homeless mortality -- or allowing them to stay near their resources? What is CRPD doing to alleviate this issue? We’ve heard from a number of homeless people that they are frustrated with being told to move from where they are staying. What issues are police seeing?

We understand the concerns raised, but it’s important to clarify that this question isn’t about choosing between allowing individuals to stay without permission on private or public property or moving them away from essential services for the purpose of keeping homelessness out of sight. Our goal is to balance the rights of homeless individuals and property owners while addressing homelessness comprehensively.

To achieve this balance, we work hard to connect homeless individuals with the support they need. Our aim is to encourage those without housing to seek assistance from service providers who can help them access resources, temporary shelter, and, ultimately, a path to stable housing. At the same time, we recognize the importance of ensuring public spaces remain safe and accessible for everyone.

Based on the Department’s experience, these concerns tend to arise more frequently from individuals who are being asked to leave private property due to trespassing issues. There are also individuals who opt for this lifestyle or face challenges in engaging with assistance programs or fully committing to efforts aimed at securing more stable housing solutions. When individuals are asked to relocate, it can be a distressing experience. Negative emotions are frequently directed to the officers who represent the most recent point of contact. However, it’s important to understand that this decision is often the result of complex factors that have developed over a long time in a person’s life.

It is also necessary to point out that our efforts align with broader community initiatives to address homelessness. We remain committed to working collaboratively with all stakeholders to address the complex issue of homelessness in a compassionate and effective manner.

Berg, however, said there were obvious answers to this issue: more affordable housing, programs to help people access resources, and training for police in responding to homeless populations.

“If the amount of homelessness is going up, if there’s more people living outside year after year, if there’s more people dying outside year after year these are signs that something’s gone wrong,” said Berg.

Those solutions would come too late for Kevin Finch, but ones that could keep people like him from becoming a brief headline, and nothing more.

“This is a solution where I’m concerned that if we continue down this trajectory with the increasing homeless population and or population that we have and we don’t start to take ownership collectively as a community, and take accountability, then we are going to continue to see the same kind of situations,” she said.