Debra grew up in Pennsylvania but spent decades in California before moving back home to be closer to family. The 58-year-old Navy veteran is outgoing and quick to laugh. Some might call her zany and loud; others joyful and bright. She makes friends easily, which is why she bonded immediately with her daughter’s close friends after her death.
Given her job status, Debra had already been thinking of moving to Des Moines before her daughter Mary died. Now she had to come to the city anyway to make arrangements for the funeral and take care of Mary’s final affairs. When she clicked with Mary’s friends online, Debra decided Des Moines might be the place for her after all. One of them offered Debra a place to stay while she got settled.
But when Debra arrived in Iowa, the plan fell through. The friend said she had to find somewhere else to stay. On her first day in a new city, this grieving mother found herself homeless.
Fortunately, Debra remembered that her daughter Mary had sought help from Primary Health Care when she first moved to Des Moines. Their Centralized Intake program, funded by United Way, helps place homeless individuals with the appropriate shelter or program in central Iowa. Knowing Debra was a veteran, they directed her to the Department of Veteran Affairs, which enrolled her in a housing stability program. By that evening, she was staying at Central Iowa Shelter and Services (CISS), another United Way-funded partner, located downtown on Mulberry Street, where she got her own room.
“I never ever thought I would be in that situation,” Debra says. “I never thought I’d ever have to stay in a shelter. I ended up there.”
Debra had worked her whole life, and though she had experienced brief periods of unemployment between jobs, she never imagined that she would end up homeless. She didn’t know what to expect as she walked in the door of the shelter, and she had to admit to feeling a little bit scared.
“I guess I had a preconceived notion of the type of people that live in shelters,” she explains. “But then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, ‘I’m here. And I’m, mostly, a normal person. Things just didn’t work out for me.’
“And I started talking to the other people there. And I realized that most of them were in the same situation. For whatever reason, they had lost their homes. Most of them were just normal people who had fallen on hard times.”
Debra lived at CISS for about three months before a spot opened at the YMCA Supportive Housing Campus, another United Way-funded program. Their goal is to eliminate homelessness through permanent supportive housing.
“We build an intentional community here. Everything has to match up with hope, dignity, and support,” says Sarah Wigen, Community Engagement Director. “Each person is partnered with a case manager, and every single person has different goals.”
The campus has 140 apartments, each with its own kitchenette and bathroom. All residents were either homeless before or at risk of homelessness. Although they are required to pay rent of $508 a month, the majority are covered through assistance from the VA, Section 8, or from the YMCA itself, which is where part of the United Way funding goes. Many of the residents are struggling with personal trauma such as job loss, divorce, domestic violence, bankruptcy, mental health issues, drug addiction, and/or medical problems.
“Debra came here without a support network,” says Wigen. “She came here without that at a really difficult period—a time of transition and sorrow in her life.”
To help create that community for Debra and other residents, the YMCA hosts a weekly community meal, as well as other events such as bingo, craft classes, and volunteer opportunities on- and off-site.
Debra found real community at the YMCA. She became a regular volunteer around the campus, pitching in during the weekly meal and helping out the other residents. During an origami project for donors, she folded dozens of paper cranes meant to represent hope and healing and then taught others to make them too.
“She always finds the yes,” says Wigen. “She has amazing follow-through. She was great helping to create the community we hope to have here.”
Greater Des Moines’ YMCA Supportive Housing Campus is the only one in the nation based on the Housing First model, which focuses on housing individuals and meeting their basic needs of food and shelter before addressing other more complex issues.
“We believe that once you get here, you can get out of day-to-day survival mode,” says Wigen. “Then we can help you achieve the next steps.”
For some, those might include mental health care or sobriety. For Debra, it was getting a job and an apartment of her own.
The Foundation of a Quality Life
Debra appreciated her life at the YMCA not just because she had her own apartment with a kitchenette, or because she got to finally reunite with her beloved dog Holly, but because it motivated her to go out and seek more. In her words, life there was “not very exciting,” she says with a laugh, and she soon tired of the deli sandwiches provided by the VA in her daily lunches. She didn’t expect them to provide more, though. She knew if she wanted a cheeseburger, she had to earn the money to pay for it.
“When I got to Des Moines, I needed some help,” she says. “I needed exactly what I got, which was awesome. I needed to not worry about a place to stay and food to eat, which are your basic human needs.”
United Way of Central Iowa invests in Essential Needs, such as food and housing, as the foundation of our other priorities: Education, Income, and Health. When these basic needs are not met, children cannot learn in school, families cannot be financially stable, and individuals cannot enjoy health and well-being.
Affordable housing is especially a problem in central Iowa. According to Polk County Housing Trust Fund, 8,350 more affordable units are needed to meet current needs.
“There is not enough housing for people experiencing homelessness,” says Wigen. “If someone falls on hard times or their housing is at risk, there are simply not enough support structures within the city or within Polk County for them.”
The challenge is even more complicated for people recovering from trauma or other difficult situations. With the YMCA’s supportive, wraparound services that succeed at getting people back on their feet, the average stay is 506 days.
“If you are fleeing domestic violence or if something has happened and your life has taken a sideways turn, it takes a team of people and a lot of preparation for you to be ready to leave and go on to the next step,” says Wigen.
Debra, who stayed at the YMCA for about 5 months, believes that this kind of program is vital. “I think every city should have one.”
Since the beginning, Debra’s goal had been to find a job and become financially independent. She first started working at a local grocery store, but they kept cutting back her hours, and she was never able to go full-time. But then she connected with the security guard at the Y, who told her that his company, Per Mar, was looking to hire. She had 20 years of experience in security, and she got the job without a hitch.
She was assigned a post at House of Mercy, a treatment center and residence for women—and their children—recovering from addiction. She loves the job, as it satisfies her social personality, her desire to do good, and a need for full-time and even overtime hours.
With a stable income, Debra was ready to find her own place, especially as her adult son was interested in moving to Des Moines to live with her. She was sad to say goodbye to her newfound family but also proud of all she had accomplished, of “graduating” from the program, as she calls it.
“I have learned to appreciate what I have a lot more,” she says of her journey this past year. “I’ve learned not to be afraid to ask for help. But along with that, you have to put in your own effort.”
A Place to Call Home
Debra moved into her own apartment on the South Side in April. Her son arrived with his own dog, as well, and will soon be contributing to the rent. Her new place, though it doesn’t accept her Section 8 Housing, fits the budget she learned to make at the YMCA. It’s closer to her church and her other daughter and grandkids, who also recently moved to the area. And it has a pool, which Debra adores.
She works the night shift at House of Mercy and spends her free time with her grandkids and her dog. She loves “treasure-hunting,” as she calls it, at yard sales and thrift stores for pieces for her new apartment. Her favorite so far: a heavy crystal tumbler for 49 cents.
She’s also good at making crafty creations out of the bargains she finds; she turned a cracked teacup into a floating floral creation with just a bent fork and a few paper flowers.
“A normal day is not really exciting around here,” Debra says with a laugh. “But it’s just a thrill being able to have a normal day.”
This includes being able to cook whatever she wants, not having to stand in line for her food, watching her choice of TV show, and even eating KFC every once in a while.
“Every morning I go to bed, I just recount in my mind how many blessings I have had that day and what God has given me to be thankful for,” she explains.
That change in perspective, as well as her sunny outlook, helped her stay motivated while she was living in the shelter and at the YMCA.
“I could see myself making progress,” she says, “which wouldn’t have been possible without United Way.”
Debra’s journey has allowed her to find contentment in what she has—and she doesn’t crave anything else. Her long-term dream is just maintaining her current course.
The only thing that keeps her up at night is the monthly payments she must make on her daughter’s memorial—a simple bronze plaque. It was all she could afford at the time, but it’s stretched her budget extra tight.
Otherwise, Debra is focused on giving back to the community that helped her when she first arrived. She teaches crochet classes to the residents of the YMCA. She’s a United Way community storyteller. And she’s committed to sharing advice and resources with anyone she meets who is in need.
“I had to struggle to find what I needed,” she says. “Now that I have what I need, I can help other people with that information.”
She’s also determined to break the stereotypes about people who use homeless shelters.
“They get up and go to work every day. It’s not all beggars and bums. It just normal people who are struggling,” she says.
Debra has embraced Des Moines and central Iowa as her new home and intends to stay. She is amazed by the compassion of the people she has met here, as well as their honesty and friendship.
“A tragedy brought me here,” she says. “But it’s the atmosphere and the people that keep me here.”