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Burlington shelter to expand services amid growing homeless problem

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Transitions DMC
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Transitions DMC is housed in a former pawn shop on South Main Street in downtown Burlington. The organization helps the area's homeless population and will be expanding soon into a 24-hour shelter.

A Burlington charitable organization founded with the goal of doing anything they can to help the homeless will soon expand into a 24-hour shelter.

“Homelessness has been an increasing problem in our community here for a long time now,” said Sara Dittner, executive director of Transitions DMC.

Transitions was founded in 2016 and currently operates as a daytime warming shelter and a resource center.

“We are a low-barrier shelter so we can take in a lot of folks that don’t meet criteria for other shelters. We’ll take anybody if they’re homeless, whether they have an ID, whether they’re from Burlington, or maybe they’re from across the river, or even from Missouri,” Dittner said. “If we’ve got space available, we can accommodate those folks.”

Dittner works in an administrative role and as a case manager, helping around a hundred homeless people a year.

Services include securing hotel housing for clients, and helping them get IDs, social security cards, and a place to receive mail so they can secure employment.

Transitions also helps clients wade through the daunting paperwork required to get them back on their feet and into permanent housing.

“If you have nowhere to lay your head at night, an application that may be 20 pages, 60 pages long, and that is how long some of the applications are, that is an almost impossible task to accomplish,” Dittner said.

Transitions is also a place where the homeless population can shower, do laundry, and use a kitchen.

From the beginning, the organization envisioned operating as a 24-hour shelter.  

It’s taken five years of grant writing, donated labor and materials, and renovations to get to that point, but that 24-hour shelter is expected to be operational early next year at the organization’s South Main Street building.

With the expanded services will come more expenses, including a need for more staff.

Transitions is currently funded entirely by grants and donations, but is asking Des Moines County and the cities of Burlington and West Burlington for some financial assistance in operating the shelter.

Dittner said the 24-hour shelter will ease the strain of Burlington’s homeless problem on law enforcement and the hospital system.

It will also give her some peace of mind.

“Personally it’s really hard for me to leave here every day and lock the doors behind me knowing that I’ve got at least six people that were in my building today that are going to sleep somewhere outside tonight,” Dittner said.

Homelessness is a complex issue that was further complicated by the pandemic.

But Dittner points to two main factors at the root of Burlington’s growing homeless problem – lack of affordable housing and a lack of access to mental healthcare.

She said officials with the Burlington school district have documented up to 200 children in the community who do not have a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, per the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition of homelessness.

“For a community the size of Burlington, 200 children documented as homeless, that’s a staggering statistic,” Dittner said.

Jane Carlson covers west central Illinois and southeast Iowa for Tri States Public Radio.