Just south of downtown Des Moines, and tucked away from the families and bicyclists visiting Grey’s Lake, six people live under the Martin Luther King Bridge.
“It’s a lot scarier than people think,” says 52-year-old Bonnie Schroeder.
For the second time in two years, the city of Des Moines is evicting about 40 people who are homeless and living in camps within the city. Some have already packed up and moved on—others, including Schoeder, are appealing the city’s decision.
Schroeder set up a tent under the bridge nearly a year ago, after serving time in prison. She says she couldn’t find an apartment because of her criminal history.
“There was no place I could go. Prison didn’t help with transition. They gave me two dollars, took me to Altoona, told me to get a bus to Des Moines, and that was it. My parents both died while I was in prison,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder says she chose to camp because living in a shelter gave her anxiety. She chose the bridge because the river provided a means of escape—one she’s used multiple times.
“I could see people coming in, that I could get out if I had to. I know that river upside down and backwards,” she said.
Under the bridge, Schroeder found a group of people she trusts, who stay together for protection. During the day, they sit outside their tents in chairs facing different directions so they can watch who comes in.
Schroeder’s partner, Rick Mundy, says he’s also struggled to find housing due to his criminal background. They say they stay together at all times, because life outdoors is dangerous—and it’s worse, deeper in the woods.
“There’s a lot of people back there,” Mundy said, listing the times he’s heard of rapes, beatings and stabbings in other camps. “We’re better here where we’re at.”
But by the end of next week, Schroeder and Mundy will have to find another place to live. The City of Des Moines posted eviction notices at eight camps earlier this month. Schroeder says she’s filed an appeal.
“The main thing is, if I can feel a little safety under the bridge, why would they want to force me out from here and go to the woods where I feel less safe,” Schroeder said.
Just a few blocks away, there are 209 beds at the Central Iowa Shelter and Services. But demand far outpaces supply at the largest emergency shelter in the state. Executive Director Tony Timm says on any given night, about 30 people have to sleep in chairs, waiting for a bed to open up.
“We have balance what we do, to move as many people was we can forward, while providing care for those that can’t,” Timm said.
“Those that have the ability to help themselves and won’t, then after 90 days they have to exit our facility. Do some of those people camp? Probably.”
Even if someone is able to afford an apartment, Timm says there aren’t enough landlords willing to lease to tenants with less than stellar rental histories. He says nonprofits need to be able to offer wraparound services like mental health counseling and job training for people who are transitioning into permanent housing.
Timm says he hasn’t seen an influx of people coming to the shelter since the eviction notices were posted. And he doesn’t expect to. He credited the city with asking nonprofits to reach out to campers before the evictions became final. But he says if a person isn’t willing to make an effort, or has struggled to find housing for too long and gives up, there isn’t much an organization can do.
“I think at that point people go back to survival and they probably move somewhere else, or deeper into the woods,” Timm said.
This isn’t the first time Des Moines has tried to evict the camps, which are often in wooded areas along rivers and public parks within the city. In January of 2013, several people appealed the city’s decision to evict them and won, after bringing evidence that moving in the dead of winter would be unsafe.
Community Development Director Phil Delafield says city officials decided to post the notices after receiving complaints from public safety officials, who said propane heaters in the camps posed a fire hazard. Other complaints were received from people using bike paths, who said they were intimidated by people camping nearby.
“We’re looking at this more as a cleanup of the unsanitary conditions, much less an eviction. Obviously this isn’t the appropriate use of public property from our perspective,” Delafield said.
This time around, Delafield says about 20 people have filed appeals with the city—but he hopes they’ll be able to find longer-term solutions.
“We seem to be able to focus on young families, single mothers with children, but there is not yet a group that focuses on the chronically homeless... given the resources of this community, it seems to me that that isn’t an insurmountable amount of people to find housing for.