No Rest for the Wicked

This one’s for both Dubuque’s and Chattanooga‘s homelessness haters

Ironic final exit sign at a Dubuque, IA casino. (Photo Diane Nilan)

My friend Jeff Lenhart, manager at the Dubuque Rescue Mission, just shared an article about his city’s (mis)handling of people experiencing homelessness on the streets of Dubuque, the “Masterpiece of the Mississippi.” Needless to say, it didn’t please me. Nor, I’d guess, will it please the relative small handful of unsheltered folks living on the streets.

Instead of implementing the recommendations of city council months ago, to have a social worker accompany police officers when they deal with someone on the streets violating the new restrictive ordinances, City Hall has evidently stalled. According to today’s article in the TelegraphHerald,

Myths vs Reality

Yeah, “find emergency housing,” “connecting with resources,” “coordinated entry hotline,” “street outreach,” all sound good. But truth be told, none of those “approaches” are that effective. The unsuspecting public goes on with their business, thinking all is under control. It’s not.

Dubuque has been wrestling with doing the right thing for people who don’t fit into the community’s narrow offering of homelessness services. This city, like every other one across the country, has seen a surge of people living on the streets. Visible homelessness causes duress and, as weather gets colder, it creates a dilemma. Be kind or be mean?

I’ve been to DBQ several times and am willing to go again if needed to stop them from imposing harsh and deadly policies to keep people from visibly sleeping in the downtown area. They need a reality check.

Another City, Another Hateful Approach

This Budgetel Inn, in East Ridge, TN outside of Chattanooga, was emptied of the entire occupancy by the Hamilton County DA on November 16, 2022
This Budgetel Inn, in East Ridge, TN outside of Chattanooga, was emptied of the entire occupancy by the Hamilton County DA on November 16, 2022. Photo Diane Nilan

I recently traveled to Chattanooga to see what the heck was going on there — why the newly-elected Hamilton County DA Coty Wamp kicked out upwards of 700 kids and adults from their rooms that they paid for and left them hanging?

Wamp went far beyond the lethargic leaders in DBQ, sending in sheriffs unannounced, guns unholstered, at 6:00 am, giving all just 4 hours to pack up and get out— disabled persons, parents with infants and small kids, traumatized adults — all desperate for a place to stay, without resources, most without cars, money or options.

What these cities have in common —staff with a genuine lack of compassion, and an even more serious lack of understanding about homelessness. Elected boards — city councils and county commissioners — seem powerless while the staff take tried and failed approaches to rid their streets of what I’m sure in private conversations get labeled as “eyesores.”

Beyond “eyesores,” DA Wamp painted those she kicked out as “child molesters” in a email to county commissioners, decrying the help both county and city officials provided to help pay for motel rooms for those ousted. The news report quoted Wamp,

Debate on Dubuque’s approach to homelessness flared up back in October, when the council quickly voted to support changes in ordinances to give police more muscle in dealing with visible homelessness. Move ’em out, send ’em away, would be an adequate summary.

Coty Wamp oozed faux kindness and compassion in her email to the commissioners when she said,

Time for Truth vs. Myth

In Washington, DC on Wednesday for an inspiring Memorial Blanket event, I interviewed a director of a state’s 2–1–1 system. In theory, this system will connect people with assistance needed in an emergency — utility cutoffs, evictions, etc. In reality, she admitted, that demand for help far exceeded actual resources available. What that means is a fast track to homelessness with little help available. Such is the same with the “coordinated entry” system cities proclaim as their approach to homelessness. If these systems worked, we’d not have so many desperate people.

The “popular” myth about homelessness: it’s all drugs, alcohol and mental illness. That ignores the vast systemic causes of homelessness that can begin from childhood. My “Other Stuff” chart illustrates many of these issues that pile onto those without the wherewithal to fend off life’s upheaval.

chart of the causes of homelessness.
Many of the causes of homelessness. HEAR US Inc.

When things fall apart, because of a childhood filled with trauma-inducing abuse, a string of bad breaks as an adult, or any of the seemingly endless ways life gets upended, homelessness can happen. When it does, scant meaningful help is available, now more than ever. (For you thinking you know people who clawed their way through hard times in yesteryear, it’s way different now. Trust me.)

Both cities think they can sweep the problem away. But, with our national failure to truly address homelessness, every community has a steady “flow” of people landing on the streets. For many reasons. This won’t be fixed by further uprooting those without homes.

As I keep reminding policymakers, ignoring family homelessness, as has happened since I entered this challenging field in the mid-80s, will guarantee more homeless adults to take the place of those removed from view.

This girl and her family lived in a camper for years. Here’s their story. Photo Diane Nilan

Look in the eyes of kids who have nowhere to live. Like this little 2-year-old. Realize that by not helping her and her family to overcome their dire circumstances that led to homelessness, she will likely be living on the streets in 10 or so years. You good with that? Because that’s the reality.



Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 18 yrs. on US backroads.

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Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 18 yrs. on US backroads.