Weathering The StormOct 22, 2023 02:04AM ● By Julius Fredrick
For some, it’s a slammed door and the reek of stale booze drifting up from the foyer; “He’s been drinking again…it’s okay sweetie, I won’t let him hurt you. Stay here; mommy will be right back…”
For others, it’s the scream of shrapnel, the dull thud of infantry armor, and hissing static; “Man down! I repeat, man down! Doc, do you copy? Doc? Stay with me soldier! Damn it, stay with me brother…”
Sometimes, it’s more like an awful game of roulette—mania, depression, rage, despair—click.
Or worse yet, it’s the terror and solitude of delusion. Hundreds of invisible legs scuttling out from pores and between follicles; disembodied voices taunting and jeering without pause.
Histories of abuse, trauma, and psychosis are often present. For many, though, it starts innocuously enough. An overdraft notification, a missed step down the stairs, an engine sputtering to a stop—bills, rent, insurance, repairs.
A pile of envelopes mounts on the counter; and so too, the need for relief. Old vices probe and prick the skin, seeking out a familiar itch. The phone typically rings unanswered, but this time it’s not the landlord or collections. It’s an old acquaintance. A few hours later, there’s a knock at the door and the meeting of sunken, hungry eyes; oblivion shared by the spoonful. A few days later, there’s another knock at the door ,but it goes unanswered. A notes slips beneath the door that reads:
“NOTICE OF EVICTION.”
For the vast majority of those experiencing homelessness, their circumstances are rarely, if ever, the result of a singular issue or decision. Trauma, mental illness, accidents, and drug abuse are indeed common. Tenuous employment, stagnant wages, the rising costs of goods, and a white-hot housing market have exacerbated existing problems. The interplay between these factors, and many more besides, means the topography of “rock bottom” is highly stratified, and of course, deeply personal. Still, for most facing extreme poverty—especially under an inflation-weary public glare—one feature is not only universal, it’s often permanent: stigma.
RV Camp, 90th and Blondo Streets, Alleyway
“If you are poor, they judge you instantly,” observed Shaunna Brink, rain thrumming upon the gutted 70s-era Winnebago behind her. “In fact, three businesses around here, they said they don’t want me or ‘my kind’ in their stores and, ‘If we see you again, we’re calling the police.’ Even just going in there to ask them for help—because we’ve been stuck, like, we’re stuck.”
“One has an engine, but the breaks are seized up. One has no engine and no transmission; it’s just a cratered bunk,” added Richard Fordyce, Brink’s partner and occupant of the second camper donated to the couple after going unsold at auction. “We’re trying to get things switched around—make one of them livable, drivable, usable.”
At the time, Brink and Fordyce had just three days remaining to comply with a city-mandated ultimatum to vacate the privately owned alley, with tenants of the adjacent Camelot Village apartment complex urging officials to remove the “eye sore” as soon as possible. Their previous campsite had changed hands, directing police to remove the couple, and Brink’s father towed them to the alley behind a shuttered Godfather’s Pizza near 90th and Blondo streets.
“And with the rain right now, I have to cover this thing with tarps,” Fordyce grunted, gesturing inside the junk-stuffed RV. “It’s got holes like a starry sky. The roofs on both of them are compromised.”
“I mean, it’s doable. Yeah, it’s doable,” Brink affirmed to herself, glancing toward the more intact of the Winnebagos. “Some people are living under bridges, and it’s crazy. And it’s like, at least I have an RV, right?”
Together, 812 S 24th Street
In 2022, a record-breaking 127,768 Americans endured what sociologists call ‘chronic homelessness’ per demographic data compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services (HUD). The department’s Annual Report to Congress (AHAR) also revealed the of number of “individuals” experiencing homelessness—measured separately from families, veterans, and unaccompanied youth—has reached a 421,392 people unhoused last year. Alarmingly, both of these numbers represent the highest tallied since HUD began issuing the report in 2007.
Although frequently insulated from the brunt of national crises, Omaha isn’t immune to the surging rates of homelessness. Estimates by the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH) reported a 200% spike in unhoused people over the last five years.
“In the 13 years that I’ve been at Together, even more than the two years at the height of the pandemic when it was crazy and we were operating a pantry outside, and I had the mayor’s office and everybody calling me because there’s 200 cars lined up on Leavenworth every day…this year and next year, I think, will probably be the most daunting we’ve ever had, because you still see near pandemic levels of need,” explained Together President and CEO Mike Hornacek. “But all the resource organizations like Open Door and Together and Siena and Heartland that have had the last three years to meet that need are gone.”
It began as an interfaith cooperative—remarkable for the time, uniting Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Jewish, Lutheran, Episcopal, and other religious leaders in common cause— to feed, clothe, and shelter those displaced by the devastating Omaha tornado outbreak of 1975. Today, Together provides crisis engagement services, a rapid rehousing program, and a grocery-style food pantry in downtown Omaha and Council Bluffs, respectively.
“On the food side, our food supplies are off about 45% this year,” Hornacek continued, again citing a plateau in funding with the expiration of COVID emergency benefits. “So, I still have pretty much the same amount of people walking through the door with 45% less food.”
However, it’s housing that has Hornacek—and the social services sphere writ large—especially concerned.
“Between all of us [area nonprofits] in the last three years, I think we’ve put $90 million [into rental and utility assistance] that kept everybody out of eviction court and everybody afloat,” he continued. “And we will never see that kind of money again in our lifetimes.”
While the forecast for the coming years appears stormy at best, there is a silver lining relatively unique to the Omaha metro: the cooperation between area organizations and their dedication to filling in the gaps when and wherever specialized care is required.
For example, whereas one shelter serves families or single women, Together has focused on the rapidly growing population of displaced seniors.
“It’s what we call the STEP Program, or the Short Term Emergency Housing Program,” Hornacek said. “We bought a help hotel and turned it into short term emergency housing, and it’s for those 65 and above with very specific health needs who are experiencing a housing crisis. A lot people getting discharged from the hospital—could be battling cancer, or having health issues that make them vulnerable in a congregate shelter.”
Ultimately, however, Hornacek believes providing enhanced mental health services presents the greatest yields for long term change.
“There is so much homelessness where we see the root cause is behavioral health issues. There is rampant schizophrenia, bipolar, severe depression, and anxiety that severely impact somebody’s ability to live independently,” he said. “And our healthcare system, specifically mental health services, is not adequate to provide the level of services that’s needed. We have this revolving door of homelessness that’s from street homelessness, to our emergency rooms, to our shelters.
“It’s a revolving door of the same people because they can’t get accesses to mental health services they need, number one. But number two, and even more importantly, when they do get access, there’s not enough support mechanisms in place to make sure that they stay with their care plan.”
RV Camp, 90th and Blondo Streets Alleyway
“Yeah, I mean I’ve got a mental health diagnosis sheet a mile long,” Brink said with a laugh. “I used to work a $20 an hour job back in 2016, and my significant other left after eight years, and it…you know, I moved in with my dad and I actually got in an unfortunate amount of trouble.”
Brink shrugged, flashing a wide grin that fell just short of masking her heartache.
“I only had a speeding ticket prior to that, but basically…I became a felon very quickly, and you know, it stops you,” she confessed. “Then on top of that, one of my diagnoses is PTSD, and unfortunately there’s not a lot of help for people. I’ve worked with all these different places and all the people, and what’s crazy is they’ll give you a list of places to call. You call these places, and they cycle back into each other!
In the end, Brink posits that, especially if the systems in place are ineffective at elevating certain people beyond their condition, developing a strong sense of community is the next best thing.
“That’s what makes it hard, people always talking homeless camps [in a disparaging way]—homeless people stick together because what you don’t have somebody else might, and you can help other people. But yeah, it’s a slippery slope.
She paused. “And as far as the amount of things people waste, you know, it’s crazy!” Brink exclaimed. “It’s absolutely insane the amount of things people just throw away!”
Mayor’s Office, 1819 Farnam Street
Completely KIDS, 2566 St. Mary’s Avenue
Last November, the unprecedented rise in the Metro’s unhoused population prompted Mayor Jean Stothert to create a new City position, and announced the name of the woman who would have the premier role on December 5 of that year: Homeless Services Coordinator, Tamara Dwyer.
“My professional background in homeless services has exclusively been in the Omaha Metro area. I started in this work about 10 years ago working for Youth Emergency Services in their Street Outreach Program. I also worked in their Maternity Group Home occasionally. I was there full-time and part-time over the course of about four years,” Dwyer recounted. “From there, I went to work as a case manager at Stephen Center in their shelter and in their Permanent Supportive Housing Program. I worked there for a couple of years then started working for MACCH in the summer of 2019 as the Continuum of Care Support Specialist. I was drawn to Social Work because it just felt like the right fit for me, like I was born for social work. I am not sure how to explain it any better than that.”
In her capacity as Homeless Service Direct, Dwyer aims to serve as a focal point toward ending homelessness in the city; coordinating local, federal, and state agencies under a comprehensive and unified strategy that includes both reactive and proactive policies. She also serves as member of the city’s Homeless Task Force, which meets to address emerging problems and discuss solutions on a monthly basis.
“When I interviewed for this job, I asked what the goal is for the position. I was told the goal is to end homelessness in Omaha, so that is my main direction and goal. I know we can get to a place of functional zero,” she said. “Many communities have, but it wasn’t quick or easy. We need to have dedication and commitment to that main goal and know there will not be an immediate one-size-fits-all solution.”
Dwyer’s perspective on homelessness, however, is informed by experience likely more valuable then her studies and work history, even with her already impressive resume.
“I think why I chose to specifically focus on homeless services had a lot to do with my ability to relate to folks who were going through the constant survival that is homelessness and housing instability,” Dwyer explained. “As a mom at a very young age, and not having lots of family that were able to help or support me, I struggled for many years with homelessness, poverty, housing instability, and many other things. Being stuck in that survival mode really affects someone’s ability to look beyond their current situation.”
Dwyer is well aware this crisis won’t go away over night, and it may become worse before it gets better given recent socioeconomic pressures; yet, as Completely KIDS Chief Program Office Ann Lawless is likely apt to notice, Dwyer is living proof that the ‘Cycle of Poverty’ can be broken.
“So I don’t think you can move a family out of poverty by just an after-school program for their kid,” Lawless noted. “I mean, I just don’t think that’s realistic, right? And so the idea is to get that holistic approach, or another term for it would be a generational program, to have kids and parents together learning as a means to break that cycle of poverty and get families in a better situation, currently, and then hopefully, to the future.”
And while Completely KIDS provides after school programs for both private and public institutions that serve low-income families (including those at area shelters) and their own facility on St. Mary’s Ave—offering a lunch program, various classrooms, adult education, a teen employment program, and a summer camp hosted every summer—Lawless’ perspective mirrors Hornacek’s regarding long-term outcomes.
“We have our own therapists—a clinical director, and she has to two full-time and three part-time therapists, and so we do group and individual therapy,” Lawless explained. “When you have a kid that’s demonstrated some sort of unmet need, you sit the parent down first and go through an assessment to figure out, ‘How can we best help this kid?’
“We serve a lot of kids with trauma, a lot of homeless kids; homelessness is trauma, poverty is trauma […] and we try to include the parents as much as possible, because we know how important that is...”
RV Camp, 90th and Blondo Alleyway
We had Section Eight. I actually have three kids…I mean, I lost my kids because of this stuff, because I fought really hard to keep my apartment and all that,” Brink confessed, droplets of rain coalescing at the ends of her frayed hair. “But at the end, I mean, I lost it, and they’re not supposed to be able to use your poverty against you, but they do.”
“Unfortunately, without having a stable place, your world becomes so chaotic—how am I going to get this fixed? How am I going to do this?”
Open Door Mission, 2828 N 23rd Street E
The Open Door Mission began serving the metro in the 1950s when the promise of hard, yet honest work on the railroad drew in a far greater demand than the tracks could supply.
“So, we anticipate your need to have some financial savings, so we work on getting people to pay off debt and create an emergency fund. We work with people to make sure that if they are on a fixed income, that they work on a budgets so that they won’t use up money that they don’t have,” observed Steve Frazee, chief impact officer for Open Door Mission. “You know, most of us have family or friends who can help us out in a pinch. A lot of times, life has made it so that folks’ circles are very small…and so the case managers work with them, and we provide services for them.”
A sociological concept called “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” introduced in the 1980s continues to have relevant implications. Needs are structured in a pyramid, with basic ones such as shelter at the base. That is, without that foundation, it’s impossible to continue building the pyramid and moving upwards.
“If you imagine walking through life and genuinely believing it doesn’t matter, then you literally are just worried about what’s going to happen next. And that’s part of what we try to do; we try to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty, and it’s trying to break that mindset for people,” Frazee explained.
“The idea of resilience is something that the psychological community is talking about, and trying to understand that we don’t know what it is that will break you, or break me,” he continued. “We just don’t know what that little thing is, right? And so people are so diverse, and their needs are so personal, that a single system just doesn’t work, and a single description of how somebody got there…it’s very complex.”
For more information about resources, volunteer opportunities, and making charitable donations related toward combatting homelessness in Omaha please visit the following sites: togetheromaha.org, opendoormission.org
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.