By William Smith
It has been a year since Kathy Johnson became director of the Burlington Area Homeless Shelter.
She has been helping the less fortunate far longer than that. However, her aversion to attention has left those acts of kindness unsung.
"As cliche as it sounds, my mom has always been able to take lemons and make lemonade. She is right where she needs to be in life, being a blessing to others. My mother is persistent, stubborn, empathetic, and a humanitarian,” said Krystal Johnson, who nominated her mother to be one of The Beacon's Everyday Heroes.
On Memorial Day, fittingly enough, Johnson will be taking one of the nation’s many homeless veterans into the shelter. He isn’t the first veteran she has taken in, and he won’t be the last.
“He already has a job, but he’s been living in his truck. He’s been paying for his own medication, but we’ve got the VA paying for part of it now," she said, noting a stay at the shelter is typically two to four months.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) hasn’t made Johnson’s job any easier. The shelter normally can house 11 people, but Johnson has been forced to cut the occupancy in half to follow state-mandated COVID-19 safety protocols.
“We provide food, clothing, transportation,” Johnson said. “If the BUS (Burlington Urban Service) isn’t available, we pay for a cab for them to get to work until they get their first paycheck.”
The homeless shelter is 100 percent funded through community donations and the United Way, not taxpayer dollars. The shelter survives entirely on the goodwill of others, and Johnson channels that monetary kindness into second chances.
Every resident is different, and many need more help than the shelter can provide. They are buoyed by a network of social services across Burlington that work closely with the shelter.
Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services of Southeast Iowa (ADDS) provides counseling to addicts looking for help. The Nest of Des Moines County supports new and expectant mothers with formula, diapers, and parental classes. Hope Haven and other mental health services provide stabilization. Hope Haven sets aside vouchers for clothing and furniture for homeless shelter residents at its thrift store.
Johnson worked freelance in the healthcare field before living in the shelter (a job requirement) with her 13-year-old German Shepherd. She has cared for those with Parkinson’s Disease, patients with brain damage, substance-addicted teens, and hospice patients at the end of their life.
It’s what she does. It’s what she has always done, starting with her father.
“My dad was sick for years. He got radiation poisoning at the plant (IAAP), so I helped take care of him for 17 years,” she said.
Johnson has two grown children, including a son who was also ill for several years, and four grandchildren.
“Tough but fair” is a requirement for a job like hers, and decades of experience have attuned Johnson to dealing with adversity.
“Since I’ve started, I’ve only had to kick three people out,” she said, noting that one of those involved an incident with alcohol.
After becoming director a year ago, Johnson had security cameras installed on the upper floor where most of the rooms are located. Extensive background checks of residents during the application process are required, especially since families also are housed in the shelter. The doors are locked to the general public, and strangers are forbidden.
Johnson has unlimited access to background checks through the Des Moines County Sheriff’s office. If an applicant is found to be a registered sex offender, she notifies the police. If there is a warrant for their arrest, they are taken into custody.
“I will take you if you’re an addict as long as you’re not actively using. You have to go to ADDS, though. I will take the mentally ill as long as we’re able to help them,” she said.
If the shelter is full, Johnson works to find alternative housing. Rooms can’t be held because that often means turning away someone else.
Each night ends in a communal, home-cooked meal at the first-floor kitchen table. While many women and families use the shelter, the majority of the residents are men who refuse to seek help from friends and family.
“It’s a pride thing for them a lot of times,” Johnson said.
Without the 11-person board of directors that oversee the shelter, she said, no one would be staying in the modest white house on Marshall Street. It’s due to their kindness, and the community at large, that the down-and-out get another chance for a stable life.
Johnson sees herself merely as their willing tool — an instrument of humanity.
“I have a gift for caring for people, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “This is where God wanted me.”
(Editor’s Note: Everyday Heroes is an ongoing series featuring people who make a difference in our community. If you want to nominate someone for a story, contact us at email@example.com or message us on Facebook.)
Photos by Joy Mack
Photos 1 and 2: Kathy Johnson, director of the Burlington Area Homeless Shelter, poses for photos at the shelter. Johnson's willingness to help others has extended to her job at the homeless shelter.
Photos 3-7: The exterior and the interior of the homeless shelter are shown last week.