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Making use of DR-M for transitional housing in Benton and Iowa Counties

By ANDREA FURLONG

drnschool
The Deep River-Millersburg Elementary building has been unoccupied since the reorganization of English Valleys and DR-M districts six months ago. The Benton-Iowa County Decat Board is currently looking at converting the building into transitional housing.

Six months after the last classes of Deep River-Millersburg Elementary students departed for summer break, discussions are in the works toward plans that could bring children back to the former elementary building.

The Benton-Iowa County Decategorization Board is looking at purchasing the building from the English Valleys School District (which reorganized with DR-M), so it can be used for transitional housing, while also serving as a new location for the Migrant Head Start program.

According to Benton-Iowa County Decat Board Executive Director Tammy Wetjen-Kestersen, the building, which sits in Millersburg, would be a prime location for Migrant Head Start, which is “rapidly outgrowing” its current location in Marengo.

“They will be only a few miles from the west migrant camp,” Wetjen-Kestersen pointed out.

The Decat Board’s initial plans for the building would place Migrant Head Start, which served 72 children last year, in up to seven different classrooms, while also allowing the program to have office space. Head Start would likely rent their part of the facility from Decat.

TRANSITIONAL HOUSING

The remainder of the two-story building — approximately 35 percent — would serve as the first transitional housing facility in Iowa and Benton counties.

Currently, when Iowa and Benton county families are displaced due to domestic violence, poverty or other circumstances, their nearest options for transitional housing are in Iowa City or Cedar Rapids — pulling the family out of the county and the children out of the school district into urban areas where they might have a hard time adjusting. Establishing transitional housing in the area would provide those families with a better option than moving away or enduring the hardships at home, Wetjen-Kesterson said.

“Families really don’t have a lot of resources out here and they continue to live in poverty and the children suffer and they go to school and they fall behind in school. They end up having family issues or department involvement or juvenile court involvement. This could fulfill some needs for some very high need, vulnerable children and families,” she said.

Wetjen-Kesterson said she is unsure of the number of families who might benefit from such a facility, but said she is aware of cases that prove there is a need for transitional housing in this area.

“There are families from Benton, Iowa and Keokuk counties that are in homeless shelters or domestic violence shelters. Many more, that we cannot get a true picture of, are homeless that are “doubled up.” They are living with friends or relatives usually in less than ideal circumstances for children. We also have families that are living in unsafe housing. The conditions in this type of housing is usually dangerous to children…sometimes no heat, no water, unsafe structures, insect and vermin infestation and lead paint. Iowa County and Keokuk Counties have high rates of children with high lead levels,” she said.

Wetjen-Kesterson emphasized the building would not be used as a shelter, which serves as a temporary place to provide for the basic needs of families who’ve just left poor living conditions or domestic violence situations.

“Transitional is meant to make the transition from shelter to permanent housing. Families would be past the most immediate crisis and be stable. It gives them opportunities to connect with all kinds of services to help them while they have a stable, safe and healthy place to live with their children,” she said.

The Decat’s initial plans would renovate the building to include approximately nine apartments for transitional housing, with a bathroom in each apartment; two unisex restrooms available to anyone; a laundry room; a conference room and office space. Doors would be installed to separate transitional housing from Head Start. Other safety features Wetjen-Kesteron said the Decat Board is looking at include regular patrol of the area, staff available 24/7 for building residents and securing all doors with locks. The Decat Board is exploring its options to fund renovations, utility bills and maintenance with Housing and Urban Development funds and grant money, Wetjen-Kesteron said.

A firm proposal to English Valleys will likely be made after the finalization of blueprints, estimates for renovations and other details, Wetjen-Kesteron said. EV Superintendent Alan Jensen said if presented with a proposal, he plans to recommend the school board sell the building to Decat, a non-profit entity, for $1.

“It seems if it can be used for the betterment of our community, it’d be a nice addition for the community and a nice use for it. It sounds like a win/win situation for everyone,” Jensen said, no other parties have expressed strong interests in the building.

Jensen said if the building could not be sold, the district would likely consider demolition.

“It wasn’t going to be an eyesore,” he said. “Preliminary discussions last winter for it . . . we heard from several people in the Millersburg community and area that if the building could not be used for something, it would not be allowed to sit there and decay,” he said.”

Iowa County Sheriff Rob Rotter agreed it would not in Millersburg’s best interests to let the building sit vacant for a long period of time.

“We do not need another empty school. We have one in Ladora and, as well as could be expected, it had a fire, and now you’ve got a burned out building there. Anytime you have a large building like that go unoccupied and vacant, it’s never going to be optimal to that town. Anything they can bring in there to keep that building and occupied and basically, not falling down into itself is a plus. And, it’s something that the county needs, so it’s a win-win,” Rotter said.

No firm offers have been made by Decat to English Valleys at this time. The matter is currently scheduled for discussion and possible approval at English Valleys’ next board meeting, Thursday, Jan. 14.

The Benton-Iowa County Decategorization Board is a non-profit entity which help provide or build collaborations to create or maintain infrastructure that reduces child abuse, child neglect or juvenile delinquency.

UPDATED December 16, 2009 11:10 AM

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