Emergency Assistance Research Findings

The Crisis Center of Johnson County provides emergency financial assists of up to $100 to help Johnson County residents avoid eviction or loss of utilities through our Emergency Assistance (EA) program. In the spring of 2012, Mallory Dreasler, a MSW candidate in the University of Iowa School of Social Work, embarked on an EA research review for The Crisis Center, with two established goals: 1) Quantify the program’s effectiveness and 2) Look for ways to make it more beneficial for those it serves.


The Crisis Center's EA program has existed since the 1990’s and has been funded primarily through the Consultation of Religious Communities and their Common Fund as well as the St. Anthony’s Fund at St. Mary's Catholic Church. Private donors have also supported the effort. Operational support has been provided by Johnson County and the City of Iowa City. In addition to helping households avoid eviction or loss of utilities, the EA program can also assist individuals with obtaining prescription medication, work-related items, identification, and birth certificates. 

The majority of EA funds are distributed through a weekly "lottery" system at The Crisis Center, where the number of households requesting help exceeds the amount of funds available every week. The rent, electricity or water bill must be "past due" before it qualifies for the program, but there are no other restrictions (ie, income guidelines). Clients can seek up to three (3) assists or a total of $500 in a calendar year. In special circumstances and if funding is available, the amount of a CRC Common Fund assist can be as much as $300. After receiving financial assistance, a household is not eligible for funds again for 60 days. 

Findings for this EA research review were culled from The Crisis Center’s historical client data with additional information sought from other agencies who serve similar populations.

FY12 Pertinent Data

From July 2011 to June 2012, The Crisis Center provided a total of 1,233 financial assists to 882 separate households. Similar to the county's population distribution, families in Iowa City made up the largest portion of recipients, but nearly every city in the county was served (see the chart at the top of the page for specific details).

Three Year Client Outcomes

EA data from calendar years 2009 - 2011 was reviewed to determine what patterns, if any, existed in client use of the program. The findings were as follows:

  • From 2009 - 2011, the EA program helped a total of 1,250 families.
  • 638 families, or 51%, received only one EA assist within the three-year period. The majority of clients, 894 or 72% of families, used the EA program only once or twice in that time.
  • 1,050 families, or 84% used the EA program three or fewer times within the three-year period. This indicates that the majority of our clients benefit strongly from the EA program; it allows them to live securely for a year or more before needing aid again.
  • 72 families, or 5.7% used the EA program extensively in the three-year period. With six or more EA assists in that time, we consider these families to be in “perpetual crisis.”

Additional Study of Perpetual Crisis Clients

More in-depth research was conducted to identify common characteristics of families experiencing perpetual crisis. 62 of these households were profiled based upon the information provided to The Crisis Center during new client intake and financial assistance interviews, as well as other information in their client files. The findings were as follows:

  • 74% of the clients profiled had children living with them.
  • 48% had specifically reported that they’d been laid off, had their work hours reduced, or been unable to find a job.
  • 27% reported receiving SSDI income, many of those citing it as their only source of income.
  • 15% had been seriously affected by a natural disaster (fire, flood, tornado).

Other common characteristics included injuries and medical problems (among both of those receiving SSDI and those who didn’t), domestic violence, and patterns of unpredictable temporary jobs. Most clients were facing more than one problem at once (a natural disaster and a disability, an illness and getting laid off, etc.).

Many clients seemed to be stuck in one place, whether it was a job with insufficient hours or chronic medical problems that were not under control. A number of clients also began as non-local clients and settled in Iowa City later, indicating a possible lack of home support system nearby.

Although some of perpetual crisis client's current situations may have started with or been exacerbated by a true crisis event (a flood, escaping an abusive partner, an accident, etc.) it seems that this small group of clients has moved past discrete crises into a cyclical, perpetual crisis pattern, and could benefit from a different sort of assistance than what EA provides.

Characteristics of other Emergency Assistance Programs

Dressler was also asked to identify and compare similar forms of emergency assistance, available both locally and more broadly in the US. The following programs offer services similar to The Crisis Center's EA program. Please note that the information listed below was gathered from public sources available when the study was completed in 2012. Updated guidelines or current availability will not be reflected in this information.

General Assistance (Johnson and Linn Counties)
General Assistance helps with similar situations (rent, utilities) as well as prescriptions, burial, or provisions. Applicants must be over 18, must not be in college, must live in the county in which they’ve applied for assistance, must have applied for every other form of assistance, must be working or actively looking for a job (including registration with Iowa Workforce Development), must meet income guidelines, must not have quit their job or been terminated due to absenteeism, must not be receiving cash assistance, and must pass through an interview process to receive assistance.

Crisis Assistance Ministry (Charlotte, North Carolina)
A “Financial Emergency Room” is available where clients walk in and are seen in order of the severity of their emergencies. In this model often the only people who can be helped are those with imminent disconnect or eviction notices.

  • Clients can come in as many times as they wish, although there’s sometimes a monetary limit on the amount of help given. Clients must have lived in their residence for 60 days prior to receiving help.
  • Documentation of both identity and emergency is required, including social security cards, income verification, leases, etc. Those without proper documentation are turned away.

Other Organization Models

  • North Iowa Community Action Organization provides emergency assistance with rent, utilities, or mortgages, but repayment is sometimes required.
  • The Linn County Salvation Army provides rent or utility help, but requires follow-up visits to ensure that clients are applying for the services they said they would.

After studying The Crisis Center's perpetual crisis clients and researching other services available, several things became clear. First, there will always be unpredictable crises to which we must continue to respond with assistance. Second, there are relatively few organizations to provide assistance in the scope that The Crisis Center does, and with the lack of bureaucratic barriers that we value.

Some clients face issues that are predictable and possibly even fixable. This is particularly true for households where the foundation of crisis is not being able to find and keep a job. A review of programs in Johnson County that provide job search, employment, and budgeting support are generally only available to certain groups, or at certain times.

Improving Outcomes for EA Client Households

This study of The Crisis Center's Emergency Assistance program revealed that for the vast majority of Johnson County households who utilize this service, one or two financial assists are all that is needed to stabilize a family in crisis and help them maintain housing. A very small percentage of households, however, appear to be facing perpetual crisis situations.

Unemployment and underemployment appear to be the cornerstones of households in perpetual crisis.  Although some resources are available for those in the Iowa City area seeking help with these issues, the programs are very limited and often are only provided to those with special circumstances (disabilities, etc.). For most Johnson County residents, very limited opportunities exist to find employment skills resources and budgeting help.

In researching programs that do provide such supports, it became apparent that offering the complete range of resources needed by households in perpetual crisis is not possible for The Crisis Center. Such programs, typically found in larger cities with additional funding resources, utilize caseworkers to help stabilize these families over time, rather than The Crisis Center's form of immediate emotional and material assistance.

Perpetual crisis clients at the agency need access to supportive services to allow them to find and keep jobs and to manage their finances successfully. At present, these services are not widely available.

As The Crisis Center board of directors begin preparations in fall 2012 for a new 5-year strategic plan, advocating to fill resource gaps for clients in perpetual crisis and collaborating with other United Way agencies to strengthen the safety net in Johnson County will be a priority issue.