Funding for Polk County Homeless, Disabled Services in Jeopardy

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DES MOINES, Iowa - Polk County's budget for local non-Medicaid mental health and disability services is running at a $7 million deficit for next year, unless action is taken by lawmakers, according to service providers.

Polk County offers a number of mental health and disability services annually, impacting the lives of over 9,000 people. Those services include support for community living, including help keeping a job, rent subsidies, and mobile crisis units. One of the services funded by Polk County's $21.5 million annual budget is the Rapid Re-Housing Program, which helps get homeless individuals off the streets and into affordable housing. For Frank Anuszewski, a former homeless man, the Rapid Re-Housing Program saved his life.

"Most of my life, I've been stable, then homeless, then stable, then homeless," he said. "It was kind of rough...I've actually been able to get my business started. Something I've been struggling with - when I do get stabilized, I try to do it. And then something happens, and I end up homeless again."

Anuszewski is now housed, thanks to the program, and runs a small computer repair business from his residence. Over 300 others are benefiting from the Rapid Re-Housing Program, which has a 92% success rate in keeping people off the streets. Over 1,300 people benefit from other services offered by Polk County that will also be cut if the $7 million deficit isn't resolved by next year.

"The bottom line is services," said Pat Schafer, a Des Moines resident and mother of a child who has relied on Polk County's mental health services his entire life. "If you have a mentally ill individual who has a crisis, and if that crisis isn't taken care of in the time it's happening, that person is going to escalate, without having someone to de-escalate them. And that has to do with their case manager, that has to do with having access to the shelter. That has to do with a lot of the services out there that can help them."

The county's $21.5 million budget only has $14 million in the bank from property tax funds it levies. Those taxes are capped by state law at $30.62 per person - a formula passed by state lawmakers in 1996. Organizers are pushing lawmakers to raise that cap to $47.28 per person, so Polk County can generate the remaining revenue it needs to offer the services it does.

"I have fully supported increasing the levy and have worked with my colleagues to stress the importance of programs like Rapid Rehousing programs that have helped hundreds of homeless in Polk [County]," State Senator Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines) said in an email. "I don’t feel optimistic about our chances of increasing the levy this session. I will try to get something done in the Senate but usually we hit a snag in the House on these types of issues."

A bill in the Senate would change the county funding formula in time for Polk County to meet its budgetary goals for next year, but with uncertainty on its passage at the Statehouse, people like Anuszewski want to raise public awareness as quickly as possible.

"Homelessness - it's not a disease," he said. "It's not something that you should shun off. It's a real, serious problem."