Rethinking Social Services in the Des Moines Suburbs

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Suburban governments are facing new challenges as poverty spreads from the city to surrounding communities. A regional effort to revamp social services is under way outside Des Moines, Iowa.


Here's one more bit of evidence showing how our country is changing. The Census Bureau says that for the first time more poor Americans live in suburbs than in cities. That is a big change for suburban officials who've long considered poverty an urban problem.

NPR's Rachel Jones traveled to the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, where a regional effort to rethink social services is underway.

RACHEL JONES: The biggest problem for the suburban poor can be summed up in one word: transportation.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

Ms. KIMBERLY SCHAFFER(ph): OK. It's messy. It's not like dirty, but it's messy.

JONES: On a snowy 20-degree Iowa afternoon, even a battered 1991 Plymouth Sundance is a godsend for Kimberly Schaffer.

Ms. SCHAFFER: Oh, boy. It's got paint on some of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHAFFER: It's a little bit white in some places and rust colored on the top. Yeah. But it's not too loud and it runs, and it was only $75 bucks.

JONES: It cost $75?

Ms. SCHAFFER: Yeah. So, I can't register it. But I got the car, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

JONES: Schaffer is a 26-year-old divorced mother of three. She's heading home to her apartment in Altoona, Iowa, 12 miles from Des Moines. She just finished a training class at a local nursing home. When Schaffer signed up for it last month, she had no way to get there each day. Then a friend sold her the junker sitting in his front yard. Schaffer knows the car doesn't exactly scream suburban soccer mom in a suburb like Altoona.

Ms. SCHAFFER: Then I just pull over cars (unintelligible). Doesn't do much for the tourist, you know, attraction.

JONES: And after just three weeks, the financial realities of car ownership are kicking in - license, registration, insurance. So far, it's already cost about $800 that Schaffer can't afford.

Ms. SCHAFFER: Because I am trying to get done with my school, and I have all my kids and…

JONES: In Altoona, only two buses go back and forth to the Des Moines each day, one at 6 AM and another at 6 PM. And when low-income workers like Schaffer needs help with things like housing vouchers, utilities or job training, they to go to Des Moines to get it.

All over America, more low-income families are migrating in to suburban areas for cheaper rents and jobs. But emergency help for the poor can be hard to find outside a big city's borders.

Ms. CAROLE BODIN (Coordinator for Emergency Housing, West Des Moines Human Services Agency): I mean, it's like everything kind of happens a little slower. It takes a little longer to get to this community.

JONES: Carole Bodin coordinates emergency housing for the West Des Moines Human Services Agency. West Des Moines is one of the more upscale suburbs in the region. When Bodin's agency started in 1979, it served maybe a couple of hundred people. Today, it provides housing, food and transportation for nearly 5,000. And Bodin says her agencies had to pitch in for some other suburbs.

Ms. BODIN: So you're talking about Urbandale, and Clive, and Windsor Heights. So it's opened it's doors; it's expanding because those communities don't have any social services, so they're all referred to this department.

JONES: Ever so slowly, suburban officials are starting to recognize that shipping people off to downtown Des Moines won't solve the problem.

Mr. ROBERT BROWNELL (District 1 Supervisor, Polk County, Iowa): I think the facts, and what our intuitions are, and what our impressions are, haven't really caught up with each other yet, you know.

JONES: Robert Brownell is a supervisor for Polk County, Iowa. Last year, he was appointed to a committee that's trying to decide whether to move the Central Iowa Homeless Shelter, it's in downtown Des Moines now. Officials think it needs to be somewhere a bit more low-income families around the region can get to. Brownell says he's getting an earful from people all over Polk County. They don't want the shelter in their neighborhoods because they don't see the need.

Mr. BROWNELL: The vast past majority of us, at least in my district, but probably all Americans, have a very strong safety net of family and economics and education. And so we're not likely to fall into some of the homelessness and the poverty, and some of those things.

JONES: But Brownell says he needed to know what those things were like. So a few days before Thanksgiving, he checked himself into the Central Iowa Shelter. Brownell sported a nine-day growth of beard and a ratty wardrobe he'd pieced together. He was on his own and, he admits, scared.

Mr. BROWNELL: My impression of a homeless person was more of one of the people that lives in the campgrounds, you know, dragging cans around behind them and going through dumpsters, and they're just bums, basically.

JONES: Just one overnight stay changed Brownell's mind about the homeless.

Mr. BROWNELL: There's a population within this population that wants to climb up out of it. You know, they want to get better; they want to not be homeless. They want to have a job and they want to get back on their feet.

JONES: And if that's going to happen in suburbia, officials have to make sure that low-income working families get the support they need.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


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