What I Learned in Dubuque

What happens to people experiencing homelessness

Diane Nilan
5 min readFeb 4


I blew into Dubuque on Wednesday evening, 2/1/23, as scheduled. My drive through the hinterlands of northwest Illinois left me ever so grateful for the efficient work of snowplow crews. I came to this small-ish city perched on the Mississippi across from IL and WI, to take the pulse of homelessness, and maybe add a jolt.

Bitter cold made ‘hot’ cold and icy in Dubuque. A vent, with ‘hot’ label, has a beard of ice hanging from it.
Bitter cold made ‘hot’ cold and icy in Dubuque Temps went down to -10. Photo Diane Nilan

Thursday gave me a run for the money! My host, Jeff Lenhart who works at the Dubuque Rescue Mission, arranged this last-minute visit in addition to his challenging day job.

A County Official Who Gets It

First, a breakfast meeting with Ann McDonough, chair of the county board, and her colleague, Ed Raber, a project coordinator for Dubuque County. Jeff added his compassionate and wise 2 cents worth in our spirited discussion.

We spoke quite a bit about school issues impacting students experiencing homelessness. Ann drilled down to “Period Poverty,” the issue that few know about and even fewer would speak of. Brain health and how it impacts homelessness was another heady topic.

Their interest in how to utilize my knowledge/experience in the county was intense, but refreshing!

Diane Nilan, founder and president of Hear Us Foundation, on Thursday speaks at the local United Way in Dubuque with members of the community about homelessness. Photo by: Dave Kettering, Telegraph Herald
Diane Nilan, founder and president of Hear Us Foundation [Inc.], on Thursday speaks at the local United Way in Dubuque with members of the community about homelessness. Photo by: Dave Kettering, Telegraph Herald

Pizza Up!

Next up, pizza and pop/soda with a group of guys and one woman who have “lived experience” on the streets of DBQ. My organization, HEAR US sprung for the chow. The United Way of Dubuque Area Tri-States provided delightful accommodations. Jeff invited the participants.

My reason for the pizza “party” was to hear what this enlightened group had to say about homelessness in the Masterpiece on the Mississippi. They ranged in age from about 30-ish to 65. The woman in the group is about 6-months pregnant. They were incredibly open and honest!

I heard plenty of good about the DBQ Rescue Mission, the only men’s “shelter” in the city of 60,000. The Mission has their rules, but they also give respect, an essential element in running a place that has a capacity (36 + overflow) crowd each night. To be clear, the Mission does not claim to be the city shelter, nor should they.

This past September, the city enacted draconian changes to policies governing people on the streets with no place to live. DBQ doesn’t have tents on every corner. That’s forbidden. Cops are strictly enforcing policies that make it hard to find, much less use, bathrooms, as the pregnant woman shared with me. She was cited for trespassing which could lead to criminal charges if caught again on city property (which includes the parking decks and the renovated otherwise public restrooms).

My pizza gang shared stories of brutal childhood experiences, which certainly lead to trauma. A college graduate described the abusive punishment from his parents from early on which led him to flee his home as soon as possible, get a college degree, then spiral out of control on drugs. He wasn’t proud of it, or ashamed. It was just a fact of life, one that ruined decades of his existence.

The oldest guy, 65, spoke of life on the streets while suffering from cancer. Unimaginable, but sadly not uncommon. With temps dipping to below zero today (2/3/23), I can only hope he has a refuge, day and night. Compassionate medical care would also be helpful.

My guests were ecstatic as we discussed options — tiny house COMMUNITY for some held great appeal, but not for everyone. They brought up the impossible housing barriers — affordability, deposits/1st month rent, landlords blowing them off, etc. They all chimed in on a universal hurt — how some people looked at them, crossed the streets to avoid being in proximity, and/or said disgusting things.

Agency reps viewed Social InSecurity, Diane’s film about seniors on the streets. https://youtu.be/_NUDqvpm6WE
Agency reps viewed Social InSecurity, Diane’s film about seniors on the streets. Photo Diane Nilan

Invaluable Dialogue

My afternoon presentation was to a great representation of agencies who work in a range of capacities with adults and kids experiencing various forms of homelessness.

Issues raised were no surprise. And I validated that these same issues were ravaging communities across the land.

  • The dire lack of affordable housing coupled with landlords unwilling to work with less than ideal tenants (or accept Section 8 vouchers) was tops.
  • Inappropriate placement of people into housing through programs like “Housing First,” ranked high. The consensus — renters need to know how, or be able to learn, to be acceptable tenants. Some folks need help with that, and help isn’t available. So they cycle in/out of housing, using valuable resources of money and personnel, while burning out friendly landlords.
  • Landlords refusing to comply with Dubuque’s fair housing laws brought a roar of agreement from many in the audience. Dubuque is a small enough city to not attract many of the corporate property companies that seem to discriminate with impunity. This sounded like smaller property owners and managers who feel that housing codes don’t apply to them. Vulnerable tenants are preyed upon with no recourse.
My Dubuque “camping” spot for the night — at least I had electricity! Photo Diane Nilan
My Dubuque “camping” spot for the night — at least I had electricity! Photo Diane Nilan

I didn’t get run out of town! I was satisfied with my time there, even though I didn’t have time to enjoy the many features of this “Masterpiece on the Mississippi.” An underlying quality of DBQ is compassion, evident in each of the sessions I held. That gives me hope — they have what it takes to make humane changes that will have positive impacts for all involved. I’d like to return, maybe when the temps don’t hover below 0, to find a healthy heartbeat.



Diane Nilan

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