Close quarters

Space is tight at the Domestic/Sexual Assault Outreach Center in Fort Dodge after it moved away from outreach programming to focus its resources on shelter.

The switch, which has been planned since earlier this year, took effect on Oct.1.

Connie Harris, executive director of D/SAOC, said the expanded operations came after the closing of 12 shelters across the state.

“D/SAOC is now the designated shelter in Region 2, which is composed of 20 northcentral counties,” Harris said. “We are the crisis center hub.”

Outreach programming is handled by shelters in Mason City and Ames, according to Harris. Two Mason City staff members work out of the Fort Dodge shelter and are responsible for outreach.

“Our job primarily is providing shelter for the region,” Harris said. “We’ve changed our focus to crisis shelter and permanent housing.”

The shelter still takes calls for service, and is even looking at adding a second phone line.

“Our phone rings off the wall for all 20 counties,” Harris said.

Because of the shift to serving only as a shelter, Harris said D/SAOC had to do major remodeling over the summer.

“We converted all of our upstairs offices into bedrooms and increased our bed capacity for 35 adults,” she said. “We only have 10 bedrooms, but they’re big rooms and we have bunk beds in quite a few of them.”

The shelter also has cribs and toddler beds that can be used when needed.

“It’s not always the best situation, but it does provide safety,” Harris said.

It’s not simply the capacity of the shelter that has changed, according to Harris. Staff adjustments mean that now there is always somebody at the shelter.

“We’re not just running days and housing people,” she said. “We’re now running three shifts with counselors available on every shift to meet every crisis. It’s a big change.”

That’s been one of the most challenging parts of switching to shelter-only services, according to Harris.

“A lot of my counselors have had to adjust their lives to meet the demands of their jobs,” she said. “Most worked Monday through Friday from 8 to 4:30. Now they work eight-hour shifts which could be weekends, evenings or nights.”

Because of that, Harris said work schedules are prepared a month in advance so everybody knows when they’re supposed to come in.

With so many people in one place, Harris said that’s led to issues concerning not only space, but the ability to provide for those who live in the shelter.

“Including Food Bank of Iowa, we’ve spent close to $2,000 since July for food,” Harris said. “That’s not counting donations and people that buy their own food. We go shopping once a week just to supplement our food budget.”

In addition, the shelter has to deal with rising utility bills and maintenance issues.

“People talk about buying another building,” Harris said. “But even if we’ve got another building you still need money to operate it. We’d still have heat bills and water. A bigger building means more utilities going up.”

“You’ve got to work with what you’ve got.”

Still, Harris said that will not affect the services the shelter offers.

“We’re all here,” she said. “We’re alive and well.”

Since the switch to being a full-time shelter, she said D/SAOC has become stronger.

“Before, we were so stretched to perform all the things we were doing,” Harris said. “The idea now is that we’re all located in the shelter, we’re concentrating our efforts into one type of program. We’ve been able to focus all of our energies on programming right now in the shelter.”

“We’re really focusing on counseling, life skills, skill building, lots of group work and individual work,” she added. “We spend time with them. We focus on their strength and try to provide them with opportunities for housing, jobs and anything we can to help get them back on their feet.”