Sand Tours, Touts Des Moines’ Facility Use Of Public Funds To Help Homeless

Photo by Starting Line staff

Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand recently received a crash course on Primary Health Care’s Homeless Support Services in Des Moines, and how state and federal funding keeps the program afloat.

What makes Primary Health Care’s Homeless Support Services unique is that a person’s needs—from a shower and clean clothes, to dental care and prescription refills—are met in one building.

The Federally-Qualified Health Center serves everyone who comes to their door, regardless of ability to pay and immigration status. It’s also the headquarters for the Centralized Intake Service for Polk County, meaning it’s the location to provide families and individuals experiencing homelessness with the resources they need.

Last week, the group invited Sand to learn how they utilize all of that money to help the community.

“A lot of public outreach to me is making sure that we’re talking to people and organizations that work with state government because we want to know what their experience is like when they’re working with state government,” Sand said.

“You never know what you can learn until you start talking to someone and visit somewhere, and then you find out whether or not there’s something you could do to be helpful,” he continued.

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At Primary Health Care, Shelby Ridley, Homeless Advocacy Program Director, and Executive Director Kelly Huntsman led a tour through the dental, pharmacy, and walk-in medical clinics at the facility. They also talked about the services they’re able to provide to people in the community. That includes behavioral health and substance use treatment, all onsite.

“Really most of what we’re doing is just trying to figure out what clients need,” Ridley said. “So I think what makes us different is with all of that different funding the goal is never to have the client fit in our box but to always fit our box around the client. They’re the driver.”

She explained the community closet they have, which is always open to donationsno appointment neededand events they do to serve people who have HIV and AIDS and to prevent HIV and STIs. They also do testing events, so people know their status and can get treatment.

There’s a person who does street outreach too and spends all of his time in the community going to different camps and shelters to make sure people are getting their needs met and they know where to get more resources.

Homeless Support Services is also a housing-first organization, meaning they find and offer permanent housing as quickly as possible. That’s mandated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for several different grants they receive.

As an organization that works at the county and local level, with connections to the federal and state government, the Homeless Support Services receives funds from a variety of sources—27 according to Ridley, including the state of Iowa.

Because the money comes from so many sources, they’re able to find a lot of different ways to use it and meet different needs. Some money goes to rental and deposit assistance, while other funds go to helping people get their cars out of the tow lot so they can get to work.

And all of it happens in the same building, so someone could come for a dentist’s appointment, be seen by a licensed mental health expert, and pick up a prescription all in the same visit. All no matter their ability to pay.

That’s the benefit of government funding from state programs, Sand said.

“You’ve got people who are here who have to do the work to bring the funds in to provide care to people who need care,” he said.

Sand asked about how they handle all of those different applications. Each application asks similar questions, with different levels of detail, and the grant funding tends to start and end at different times. Ridley said they have accountants who help them keep everything straight while they decide where the funds are most useful.

“I feel like we do a good job of being good stewards of the money and really are thinking about ‘what’s the intention of the funds, what are the parameters for us?’” Ridley said.

She and Sand discussed a few ways the process could be more streamlined so they didn’t have to spend time filling out the same information 27 different times. Even if they have a system by now.

Later, Sand talked about how he wants to make it easier for people to do good work with the funding they get.

“For us, being out there, talking to the public, talking to people who are receiving public grants and doing good work with it like this, caring for the homeless, for example, we can hear things that are going on in the grant receiving or grant writing process that maybe can help us remove friction points or help things move more smoothly,” he said.


Nikoel Hytrek

Have a story idea or something I should know? Email me at You can also DM me on Twitter at @n_hytrek

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