Homelessness: an immersion experience

Barb Arland-Fye
Sarah Bisland illustrates her point about the trauma of becoming homeless for participants of an immersion experience May 30 at Humility Homes and Services Shelter in Davenport. The shelter was one of several places participants toured for the experience.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DAVENPORT — Sarah Bisland opened two suitcases on a table in the Humility Homes and Services Shelter to show the contents to participants in an immersion experience on homelessness. Articles of clothing, a sleeping bag, pillow, blankets and a bath towel — essential items that someone who suddenly finds himself or herself without a home might pack up for the journey to find shelter.

Imagine having to consolidate the contents into one overnight bag, making the experience even more traumatic, said Bisland, a permanent supportive housing coordinator with Humility Homes and Services Inc (HHSI). For space and safety reasons, the agency limits the amount of luggage guests may bring into the 80-bed, low-barrier, year-round emergency shelter in Davenport’s central city area.

As she packed the suitcases for the May 30 immersion experience, Bisland imagined herself as a shelter participant. “The thought of having to walk out of my apartment with two suitcases was hard for me to wrap my head around, and then to take the bare necessities and have to pare that down … but with limited options, that’s all you can do.”


HHSI arranged the immersion experience for community members to enlighten them about “what drives our organization and why we’re here today,” said Josh Graves, director of marketing development. HHSI’s mission is to end homelessness by offering housing opportunities and supportive services to the greater Quad Cities area. Its vision is a home for every person.

In 2023, HHSI served 1,256 individuals in all of its housing programs; half of them found a secure home afterwards. Nearly 70% of the organization’s revenue comes from grants ($3.47 million); 21% from community support ($1.079 million); and 10% from rental income ($500,250), according to HHSI’s Gratitude Report 2023.

Larry’s journey

The immersion experience began with talks by staff members who work closely with people struggling with or striving to avoid homelessness. The visitors also listened to Larry, a man who wonders how he managed to spend eight or nine years living out of his car.

His journey to that discouraging time began with the unexpected breakup of his family, a situation that left him adrift and depressed. In an unsuccessful attempt to be closer to his children and their mother who had relocated to the Midwest, he left everything behind to move here. “It was terrifying,” he said.

During his years of homelessness, Larry met Chris Dunn, an outreach navigator with HHSI who spends his days on the streets building relationships with individuals living outside to get a better understanding of their particular barriers to housing. Dunn provides emergency supplies such as water, hygiene products, blankets and referrals to appropriate services.

“I’ll go to the meal sites, the library. I’ll go down to the river,” Dunn told the attendees. He works to gain trust and to be ready to help “whenever people seem ready to move forward” in their lives. He accompanies individuals to government agencies to get Social Security and ID cards or other documents necessary to move forward with obtaining housing, healthcare and jobs.

Outreach navigators also serve as liaisons to businesses and police departments to address concerns and make contact with persons living on the street. Over the years, Dunn reconnected with Larry, encouraging him to resolve a bureaucratic issue related to employment. That issue has been resolved and Larry no longer lives out of his car.

Barb Arland-Fye
Chris Reno, a Humility Homes and Services board member, and Madelyn Beverlin, volunteer and events coordinator, sort through items in HHSI’s Corner Closet Donation Center in Davenport.

A fresh start

Approximately 60% of HHSI participants have a disability and around 40% to 45% of those participants are experiencing a mental health issue. “A lot of people don’t understand why (unhoused) people won’t come inside,” said Ashley Velez, HHSI’s executive director. Mental health challenges, previous traumatic experiences and other variables may deter them from entering a shelter.

Being patient, tender and kind is essential, permanent supportive housing coordinator Katrina Hogan said. Being on the streets might re-traumatize people who have already endured trauma, Dunn said. They risk physical and sexual assault on the streets, he added. From July 2023 to mid-April 2024, HHSI assisted 153 individuals who are living unsheltered.

Duwan Baker, an HHSI Rapid Rehousing service coordinator, shared how she works with housing program participants on gaining self-sufficiency and with property owners to ensure that HHSI participants have safe, decent and affordable homes in which to live.

HHSI’s veteran services provide shelter, homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing funding and supports to veterans and their households. From July 2023 through March 2024, “we served 180 veterans and their families across our programs and services,” Graves said.

The permanent supportive housing program combines stable housing and appropriate voluntary support services needed for participants to remain safely in their homes. The mission-focused housing program provides participants affordable rents at HHSI-owned properties, additional supports as needed, and access to the Fresh Start Center for household items and clothes.

Immersion group participants toured the Fresh Start Center and Corner Closet Donation Center, where participants in all HHSI housing programs may obtain household items, furniture, clothing and personal hygiene products they need to establish and maintain their homes. You may donate new, gently used and clean items in working order to the Corner Closet at 525 Fillmore St. (Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m-3 p.m.)

 Lunch at Café on Vine, just a couple of blocks from HHSI’s shelter, concluded the immersion experience. The café is one of many partners with whom HHSI collaborates. Waunita Sullivan, the café’s director, greeted the group with the same enthusiasm and warmth that she extends to her hungry guests in need of a free meal.

Providing an immersion experience that illustrates the journey of many HHSI participants helps the greater community understand “the challenges facing people who experience homelessness and the steps they need to take to meet their essential needs,” Graves said. “We invite people who have a voice, who can make change and advocate for individuals who may not be able to advocate for themselves.”

(Contact Graves at j.graves@humilityhomes.org to arrange an immersion experience at HHSI.)

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