Ako Abdul-Samad saw a disconnect in Des Moines’ low-income, northwest Des Moines urban area in the mid-1990s. Gang violence was costing lives – a young woman one year, Abdul-Samad’s son the next.
So he started Creative Visions Human Development Institute in 1996 to tackle problems like high crime rates, lack of nutrition and lack of adult monitoring. Creative Visions’ first employees were previous gang members who switched gears and worked to prevent violence, crime and drug use; strengthen families; and stabilize neighborhoods with large African American populations.
“The disparity in this community, and in the state, is something we’ve been addressing for years; for decades,” Abdul-Samad, a Democratic state representative in the Iowa Legislature from Des Moines, said. “It was natural at Creative Visions to look at it and begin to address it.”
Creative Visions, 1343 13th St. in Des Moines, provides free meals to people every Sunday, whether delivered or eaten in person. The non-profit served its 100,000th meal in August 2013 and continues to provide nutrition to the underserved. Creative Visions was one of three food pantries in Des Moines giving families meat rather than only canned goods in 2014.
The organization also has an education program called Outside the Box that helps students who have been suspended or expelled from school keep up academically.
A free clinic is open every Thursday. The main focus there is high blood pressure, diabetes and sexually transmitted diseases.
Behavior and emotional care for children is a major part of Creative Visions. The University of Iowa Public Policy Center reported in December 2013 that almost one in three, or 29 percent, of African American children need behavioral or emotional care. This is followed by 11 percent of Latino children, 10 percent white children and 4 percent of Asian and Pacific children.
“People want to be heard, but don’t know how to get help,” Abdul-Samad said. “We are in a society where individuals are just trying to survive.”
Creative Visions is one of several neighborhood service organizations, free medical clinics, food pantries and homeless shelters in Iowa communities that help low-income people – from African American, Latino, white and other ethnic backgrounds – in different ways.
Char Blodgett, for example, does not charge residents to stay at the Burlington Area Homeless Shelter and does not limit how long they can stay but is strict about waking them every morning to look for a job.
“It’s not ideal to stay at a homeless shelter, but I feel like they all deserve privacy and dignity, and that is what I am here to do,” Blodgett said.
More than 2,000 people receive shelter and supportive services from the Central Iowa Shelter & Services in Des Moines each year. The facility has provided free shelter and meals to homeless adults since 1992.
“We work with fragile people that have little to no means of living on their own so we keep them safe and help get them back on their feet,” Central Iowa Shelter Director Tony Timm said.
“The people we see come through were trained to misuse the health care system and go to the clinic instead of a doctor because they had a lack of funds. That is why we have a health facility on site,” Timm said.