Posts Tagged ‘shelters’

This is what love thy neighbor really means. You may not have a spare house, but how about a spare room?

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Across the country, tens of thousands of underemployed and jobless young people, many with college degrees, are struggling to house themselves in the wake of the recession, which has left workers between the ages of 18 and 24 with the highest unemployment rate of all adults. Click HERE for labor stats 

Some can move back home with their parents, but that’s not an option for those whose families have been hit hard by the economy. Without a stable home address, they are part of an elusive group that hope to avoid the stigma of public homelessness and are missed by many yearly homeless counts. They are mostly couch surfers or sleep hidden away in cars or other private places, during what they hope will be a temporary predicament.
These young adults have joined the new face of a national homeless population; one that poverty experts and case workers say is growing. Yet the problem remains mostly invisible. Most cities and states, that focus on the chronically homeless have not made special efforts to identify and help young adults and homeless families with children, who tend to shy away from ordinary shelters out of fear of being victimized by the chronically homeless who may have criminal backgrounds or who are mentally unstable.

$20.5-million complex for the chronically homeless?
The Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles is building a 102-unit, $20.5-million complex by stacking pre-outfitted apartments atop one another in a Lego-like fashion to save time and money. The residents will pay 30% of their monthly job or government assistance income as rent but are not required to seek on-site medical treatment, psychiatric counseling, drug or alcohol treatment or therapy as a condition of residency.

“The thought is, how do we help people make the choice that is best for them,” said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, who stressed the trust’s Housing First model — a philosophy that has caught fire nationwide. Alvidrez said, “The first step to helping someone recover from a chronic drug or alcohol problem is to give them a home and sense of community.”
But will someone who has a permanent residence they can afford seek out psychiatric counseling, drug or alcohol treatment on their own? Most likely, they will not. But thankfully, the problem can be hidden from the people of Los Angeles now.,0,1039440.story

Not all shelters agree with this “Housing First” philosophy.
Founded in 1975, the Siena/Francis House is Nebraska’s largest shelter, providing food, emergency shelter & clothing, along with outreach/case management to homeless families and individuals from Omaha and surrounding communities. The Siena/Francis House also houses a residential chemical addictions treatment center, a day services center, an employment training program, and a medical clinic. The Siena/Francis House has a policy that tries to never turn away any person or family who comes to them in need, regardless of their circumstances.

In 2011 the Siena/Francis House served 418,107 meals and provided 156,258 nights of shelter to approximately 4,000 homeless men, women and children. In pursuing the ultimate goal of breaking the cycle of homelessness – one person at a time – the Siena/Francis House provides a residential addiction recovery program, aptly named “Miracles Treatment Center”. Any person who desires to participate in the Miracles Treatment Center must be willing to commit to stay at least 120 days in the Siena/Francis House’s residential program, enter its job training program, and provide 40 service hours per week at the shelter.

The Siena/Francis House’s belief is that, by finding value and untapped abilities in people that society has overlooked, they help them find value in themselves. By providing persons in the Miracles Treatment Center with counseling, education, job training, and life and independent living skills, they furnish them the tools that will help them recover from, and successfully manage the problems that brought them to the doors of the Siena/Francis House in the first place. It is through programs like this that people receive a vision for a new future; one that is positive; because without vision people are destroyed.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” (Proverbs 29:18)

NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams will be airing an interview with Ann Curry Thursday, Nov. 29th that deals with a family of five from Johnson City, Tenn., that despite their homelessness, they are still a working family. There is now a growing number of working families who have become homeless in the wake of the current economic crisis.

Too many people are still holding onto the stereotyped homeless populations; that homeless people are either lazy or drug addicts, alcoholics, or have some type of mental problem. Although these make up a small percentage of the homeless community, there are literally hundreds of thousands of people, many of them hard working families, who are homeless as well.

The number of people in homeless families living in suburban and rural areas rose nearly 60 percent during the Great Recession, according to figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More than one million school-aged children are now homeless, according to the Department of Education.  And it’s more likely today that your own children are sharing a classroom with a few homeless children. (And possibly joining other classmates in making fun of them)

Many of these employed homeless have worked hard to pursue the American dream. They have college degrees. They worked to build their savings just like they were taught. But when you combine student loan debt with medical bills (Even with the health insurance from work) , a family’s debt can very easily grow into a mountain.

Many families live paycheck to paycheck and still do not have enough to cover their monthly expenses.  They become behind on their rent, and even if they downsize to a smaller apartment in a bad neighborhood they still might not be able to afford rent.

Advocates say there are not enough shelters for the nation’s new wave of homeless families and many shelters separate men, women and children because of security reasons.

Shaun Donovan, the secretary of HUD, said that shelters must begin to use their funding differently to accommodate the rise in homeless families. But at the same time he acknowledged that family-friendly shelters are under-funded.

How many of us are one bad injury or a paycheck away from being homeless?

If you end up in the hospital, you are not earning any money. And if you work and are fortunate enough to have health insurance, you will still most likely have an out of pocket deductible and co-pays. A minimum wage job only pays $290 a week. (Hardly enough to pay for a decent apartment and keep up with medical bills, let alone purchase a house)

I remember when I was homeless for a time and lived in my van because my job at the time didn’t pay enough for me to afford rent. I used a relative’s shower every morning before I went to work. The large church that I was involved with at the time generously offered to let me sleep in a storage closet during the winter. (Do you sense the sarcasm?)

Let’s face it-we live in a very greedy world that refuses to be our brother’s keeper. When I think about all of the wealth available to many of the mega churches in this country that could easily meet the needs of the less fortunate in their communities, I feel like I could walk through those churches and turn over their pews, whipping anyone who tried to stop me.

Unfortunately, I don’t think even such a drastic act would accomplish much more than getting me a room without a view in the local jail.

Even though it’s so easy to blame “the other guy” for the ills of the world, the solution should be directed at myself- What can I do to help? It may not seem like a lot, but I can help the homeless community by donating my time and finances to organizations that minister to the needs of the homeless community. And I can minister one on one to those who are homeless when God gives me the opportunity.

Isn’t that what being a godly person is all about anyway?

Ways to help:

A group of advocates for military veterans and high-profile local supporters want to build new temporary housing for homeless veterans. The project is called “Vets Town,” and aspires to provide housing and job training.

There were an estimated 600 homeless veterans in the Omaha area last year. Organizers said that the site could house 54 people immediately and potentially expand to more than 100 residents. The project would provide medical assistance to veterans, along with job training and educational opportunities.

But now, the Omaha World Herald has reported that fractures have appeared in the plan to build the new Omaha housing project for homeless veterans one week after Mayor Jim Suttle joined civic and business leaders at a City Hall press conference to build support for the effort.

Organizers said last week they were in the earliest stages of raising the estimated $3 million needed to construct the facility, when Mike Fornear, national operations manager for the Homeless Veterans Project, and Ed Shada, a local bank executive and head of Project Homeless Connect Omaha, both claimed that they own the name “Vets Town”.

Fornear said he copyrighted the term “Vets Town” last summer for a transitional housing for veterans and turned to Project Homeless Connect Omaha as a potential development partner. Shada said Fornear had no claim to the name “Vets Town” and said his attorneys had filed for use of the name and associated websites.

News of the severed relationship took Suttle’s office by surprise and it was unclear whether other civic leaders would remain involved with the Homeless Veterans Project.

This news was heartbreaking for me since my heart is drawn so much to the homeless community, and especially to those who have sacrificed so much for our country; and now this much needed project will be delayed even more over ownership of the name?

Sadly, this type of scenario plays out all too often within organizations designed to help those in the community. Many times I have witnessed unnecessary competition between different homeless shelters. All of them are committed to helping the homeless community and do a great job of offering a much needed service to the most vulnerable in the community. But I often wonder how much more they could accomplish if they would just work together.

And it’s no different within the church community. I read in the Bible that the early Church worked to bring unity to the Body of Christ. “All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had.” (Acts 4:32- NLT) But today The Church is divided in heart and mind and share very little of what they have.

Twice I have tried to start a Christian coffee house ministry and both times the local businesses were very supportive of the plan. But in both instances it was the local churches that criticized the plan and worked against it — Possibly out of fear of losing members.

I have even seen divisions within a church body itself! Many church bodies have been split over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary! This should not be! How do churches expect to draw others into the kingdom when there is so much infighting among its members?

These churches and organizations could take a lesson from the seven counties of metro Denver where, despite the increased need in these tough economic times — For the first time in years, have banded together to ensure that people who need shelter will not end up sleeping on the streets.

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is a progress; working together is success.” – Henry Ford –

A charitable marketing program that paid homeless people to carry Wi-Fi signals at South By Southwest has drawn widespread debate at the annual Austin conference and around the country. 

BBH Labs, a unit of the global marketing agency BBH, gave 13 people from Austin’s Front Steps Shelter mobile Wi-Fi devices and T-shirts that announced “I am a 4G Hotspot.” The company paid them $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York.

She called the experiment a modernized version of homeless selling street newspapers. All of the money paid for Wi-Fi — an often difficult thing to find at SXSW — went to the participants, who were selected in partnership with Front Steps. ($2 was the recommended donation for 15 minutes of use.)

But many have called the program exploitative. wrote that it “sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia.”

Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a “blunt display of unselfconscious gall.” The topic became one of the most popular in the country on Twitter by Tuesday.

I’ve been homeless before and believe me, it’s no walk in the park. I donated plasma, found odd jobs and did whatever I could legally just to sustain myself from day to day. If something like this came around when I was homeless I’d be one of the first ones in line. They are working and getting paid from the private sector, not from some government program.

Do these critics think it would be better to keep them in abandoned warehouses where they would be kept safely out of sight? I don’t understand the controversy. BBH Labs managed to find some temporary employment for homeless people and folks are complaining about this? Would they be less critical of a restaurant owner who pays minimum wage to a homeless person to wear a chicken suit in front of their fast food restaurant?

Especially when some of the homeless who volunteered to carry Wi-Fi at SXSW made more money in a day than some of the members of some bands playing there. If fact, many of the bands that play SXSW end up paying to play there.

According to Community Action Network, poverty and lack of affordable housing are the two primary reasons that people become and remain homeless. For housing to be considered “affordable” a person/family should spend no more than 30% of his or her gross household income on housing. (U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development– HUD) Stable and affordable housing is the critical first step for individuals and families to gain employment and become self-sufficient.

Here are some interesting facts about Austin’s homeless community:

• On any given day, there are approximately 4,000 homeless individuals of which 1,900 are downtown. (Homeless Count 2004)

• Over 1,500 children are affected by homelessness in the Austin Independent School District.

• High Cost of Living Contributes to Homelessness. Austin has the highest housing costs for an urban area in Texas (Texas A&M Real Estate Center Report 2005)

• Low wages Contribute to Homelessness. Of the top ten occupational categories in the Austin area, nearly 30% of those jobs have a median wage of less than $10/hour. (WorkSource)

• The Homeless Stay in the Community. 41.2% of the homeless have lived in the Austin area more than 5 years. (Homeless Task Force, 2004 Survey)

Homelessness often precludes good nutrition and homeless children often experience physical and mental development delays:

• Homeless children suffer more health problems than housed children: 38% of children in homeless shelters have asthma, middle ear infection prevalence is 50% higher than national average, and over 60% of homeless children are under-vaccinated (Redlener & Johnson, 1999)

• Nearly one-fifth of homeless children repeat a grade in school and 16% are enrolled in special education classes –33% higher than housed children; much of this is due to their high mobility rate (Institute for Children & Poverty, 2001)

• At least 20% of homeless children do not attend school. Within a year, 41% of homeless children will attend at least two different schools; 28% of homeless children will attend three or more different schools.

ECHO is Austin’s HUD designated Continuum of Care (CoC) for Austin & Travis County. ECHO is charged with providing dynamic proactive leadership that engages policy makers and the community in ending homelessness. In order to accomplish this, ECHO engages in a variety of activities including serving as the homeless planning entity for the community; and advocating for homeless issues and solutions. 

Interestingly, Austin’s COC has been silent on this issue. I would think that since part of its mission is to advocate for homeless issues and solutions that they would not only support such a venture, but also implement a similar program in its homeless community.

I hope in the future more communities and organizations can implement these types of programs that allow low income people the ability to earn some extra money while retaining some of their dignity.

In October of 2003, a cross-section of stakeholders from Nebraska attended a Federal Policy Academy in Denver, CO. The Policy Academy was one of several in which all States eventually participated. The purpose of the Academy was to assist States in developing “10-Year Plans to End Chronic Homelessness.” Nebraska’s resulting 10-Year Plan was titled “Nebraska’s 10-Year Plan for Increasing Access to Mainstream Services for Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness.”

Nebraska’s 10-Year Plan was unveiled in 2004 and was formally adopted by the governor-appointed Nebraska Commission on Housing and Homelessness. To ensured sustained and continued implementation of the 10-Year Plan, the Commission created a standing committee titled the “Ad Hoc Committee on Ending Chronic Homelessness.” The Ad Hoc Committee’s membership includes State inter-agency personnel, nonprofit housing and homelessness prevention service providers, and representatives of various consumer demographics. The Ad Hoc Committee serves as a State level version of the United States Inter-agency Council on Homelessness.

During 2010, the Nebraska Plan was revised to include five overall objectives. The Plan’s revised title is now “Completing the Journey: Nebraska’s Action Plan for People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness.” The Plan includes implementation objectives for the period beginning January 1, 2011 and ending June 30, 2012.

Chronic Homelessness

According to Homeless Emergency and Rapid Transition to Housing Act of 2009, the Federal definition of chronic homelessness is: “Individuals or families headed by an individual with any of the following: diagnosable substance use disorder; serious mental illness; developmental disability; post-traumatic stress disorder; chronic physical illness or disability; and/or co-occurrence of two or more disabilities.”

The Nebraska Ad Hoc Committee on Ending Chronic Homelessness believes that the path to ending chronic homelessness starts where people are at risk of being homeless and involves meeting people where they are with a place for supports and connections to occur.

From under a bridge to a home

Homeless for years, Mark Rettele lived in the most improbable places; His usual habitation was under the bridge near 36th and L. During that terrible winter of 2009-10 his friends had fled, leaving Rettele alone to survive on that concrete ledge through the snow and the cold. His way of life was getting old. And so was he.

Rettele is one of the “chronically homeless” — people who typically have a disability, an addiction or both and have been continuously homeless for more than a year.

Their needs and society’s cost have propelled a national push called “Housing First” that offers permanent supportive housing — apartments or assisted living with case management — to chronically homeless people without first requiring that they get sober, get healthy or have jobs. It reflects a thrust by the government to get chronically homeless people off the streets and, some skeptics point out, off homeless census counts.

Proponents say it can save lives and money. One recent study of formerly homeless alcoholics in Seattle reported a $30,000-per-person savings a year. Omaha’s Housing First was launched in October 2010. That’s when the city joined others in a campaign called 100,000 Homes, named after its goal of housing 100,000 people nationwide.

The campaign gives priority to the most medically fragile, and so an Omaha team works off a list built after a massive census of the homeless. Outreach workers canvass known hangouts or sleep spots for the homeless and try to find and keep up with those on their list. They try to persuade them to agree to housing, and then find a place for them to stay.

The team in 2010 surveyed 908 homeless people, identifying 520 as vulnerable under a measure that takes into account emergency room visits, presence of chronic disease, addiction, mental illness and occurrence of frostbite. Of those 520, 120 have been placed into housing in Omaha. Local advocates plan to analyze costs, but the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless couldn’t immediately say how much it had spent to get these 120 people housed.

They expect a savings, given national research shows that vulnerable people, once housed, are less likely to wind up in emergency room care or in jail. And their research indicates that reduced jail and ER time would save money. In 2008, the continuum looked at the costs of a one-night stay in an emergency shelter ($12.54), hospital emergency room ($2,156) and jail ($82 plus $179 for arrest costs).

Under the 100,000 Homes program, those housed get their own apartments; in some cases they go to assisted living with roommates. They also get caseworkers who visit regularly and offer support geared to make that housing stick.

What it takes to house the chronic homeless 

Heartland Family Service is paying Mark Rettele $500 monthly rent and utilities. It also has provided caseworker Lisa Rice, who estimates that she has spent more than 20 hours in the past three months on Rettele’s needs and about 20 hours before that trying to persuade Rettele to trade bridge life for an apartment. (And he’s one of her lowest-needs clients)

Rice met Rettele during that Housing First homeless census. At the time he wasn’t found vulnerable enough to immediately qualify for an apartment. But Rice kept her eye out for him during countless hours in South Omaha looking for other clients and trying to encourage more chronically homeless people to come inside.

For nearly a year he stayed off her radar — in part because of three hospital emergency room visits and five jail stints for misdemeanors ranging from having an open container to trespassing.

Then, in August she ran into him and updated his profile. He was back under the bridge. Turns out, that after his hospital stays, he qualified for housing. What surprised Rice was that he had registered for class at Metropolitan Community College.

Rettele trusted Rice and the two spent hours in her car driving around South Omaha looking for an apartment. The place had to comply with Heartland’s requirements of affordability — rent plus utilities couldn’t exceed $600 — and it had to have a landlord willing to take a chance on someone like Rettele with no job, no recent record of renting and a criminal record laden with misdemeanors.

They finally found a willing landlord and an affordable apartment in November and Rettele moved in with nothing more than some clothes. So a homeless resource team in Omaha provided a move-in kit that included trash cans, cleaning supplies, pots, pans and dishes and some other basics.

It’s a nice story, but there’s a tough reality of housing long-time homeless people with addictions, mental illnesses and other problems.

Mike Saklar runs the 340-bed Siena-Francis House in north downtown. Del Bomberger runs the Stephen Center in South Omaha.

Both shelters deal with really difficult cases that need the most support. Even when a chronically homeless person lives on the street, they tend to come back to the shelters for motivation, moral support, meals and pantries.

Homeless services here, as elsewhere, rely on government grants and private donations. One major federal grant has increased overall funding for Omaha from $209,000 in 2009 to $360,000 this fiscal year. But the emergency shelter portion is now capped at 60 percent. At least 40 percent of the formerly Emergency Shelter Grant, now called Emergency Solutions, must go to other long-term housing strategies.

Saklar and Bomberger have plans of their own to add “permanent housing” to their emergency shelter campuses. Siena-Francis House is building 48 efficiency-style apartments; Stephen Center has plans for a complex to house 14 families and 40 single people. The Open Door Mission in east Omaha opened 42 two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Saklar said his staff has had to retrieve formerly homeless people from off-site apartments because conditions became too unsafe. He said the apartments he’s building on campus will help his staff keep better tabs on their homeless clients.

Saklar said his shelter calls 911 at least once a day for what is often a seizure or heart problem.

“A lot of homeless people need 24-hour care,” Saklar said. “We see lots of people who have head trauma, heart problems, and they need medical care. You have to ensure they’re taking their meds daily. If someone like that is placed in off-site apartments, how do you do that?”

But proponents of Housing First say the alternative leaves some of society’s most vulnerable to street life, which is dangerous and expensive.

The 2009 Seattle study found that it was twice as costly to do nothing than to provide free housing to the homeless. Over the course of a year, participants in the Seattle Housing First program reduced their total costs by more than $4 million, compared with the year before they enrolled, according to results published in the April 2009 Journal of the American Medical Association. That amounted to a savings of nearly $30,000 a year per person when Housing First costs were considered.

In other words, it’s all about saving money. In the year they were on the streets, this population of homeless people with jail and hospital time racked up costs of about $43,000 apiece. But when fully paid apartments and on-site social services were factored in, costs dropped to about $13,000 per year per person.

What about families?

The U.S. Conference of Mayors 2010 Status Report on Hunger & Homelessness in American Cities in their annual assessment of 26 American cities tallied a 9 percent overall increase in the number of homeless families between September 1, 2009 and August 31, 2010. Fifty-eight percent of the cities analyzed showed an increase in family homelessness.

Based on this survey, on an average night, 1,105 family members are on the streets, 10,926 find refuge in an emergency shelter, and 15,255 stay in transitional homes. Trapped in this deteriorating economy, low-income families find themselves stuck in financial sinking sand and, although they have work, they must move out of their homes, and onto the streets because of low wages.

Of the 1.6 million children who are homeless each year in America, 42% are under age 6. Spending their critical early years in unstable housing, unhealthy environments, and chronic stress poses serious risks to a young child’s healthy development.

These are families that have lost their homes and don’t have the credit rating to get into another apartment and don’t have the savings to afford first- and last-month rent payments. Seventy-nine percent of the households with children accounted for in the U.S. Conference of Mayors Report claimed that the main cause was unemployment, and 72 percent declared lack of affordable housing. Homeless shelters will soon become overcrowded as more families are losing their homes. These are working families. They just don’t have the resources to put a roof over their head.

Families experiencing homelessness are under considerable stress. They move frequently and many are doubled-up in overcrowded apartments with relatives or friends. Others sleep in cars or send their children to stay with relatives to avoid shelter life. Once in shelter, families must quickly adjust to overcrowded, difficult, and uncomfortable circumstances. Despite the efforts of dedicated staff, many shelters are noisy, chaotic, and lack privacy. Homelessness increases the likelihood that families will separate or dissolve, which may compound the stress the family feels.

And yet so many the resources that are spent on the chronic homeless overlook families that are left to fend for themselves. On February 17, 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which includes $1.5 billion for a Homelessness Prevention Fund. Funding for this program included the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) that was designed to assist families facing homelessness.


The first step in any HPRP program is determining if a household applying for HPRP assistance is eligible to receive assistance under HPRP. In order to receive HPRP-funded Financial Assistance and/or Housing Relocation and Stabilization Services, households must meet at least the following minimum criteria:

1. Initial Consultation & Eligibility Determination: the household must receive at least an initial consultation and eligibility assessment with a case manager or other authorized representative who can determine eligibility and the appropriate type of assistance needed;

2. Income: the household’s total income must be at or below 50 percent of Area Median Income.

3. Housing Status: the household must be either homeless (to receive rapid re-housing assistance) OR at risk of losing its housing. (to receive homelessness prevention assistance)

AND must meet the following circumstances:

a. No appropriate subsequent housing options have been identified;

b. The household lacks the financial resources to obtain immediate housing or remain in its existing housing; and

c. The household lacks support networks needed to obtain immediate housing or remain in its existing housing.

The criteria listed above are the minimum criteria set forth by HUD to determine eligibility for HPRP.  But HUD encourages grantees to examine local needs to determine if additional risk factors or other determinants should be used to determine eligibility.

Because HUD encourages grantees to use additional factors to determine eligibility, many families may not get assistance; even though they meet all of HUD’s requirements.

Living independently can be a lot harder for chronic homeless

Apartment life doesn’t last long for some accustomed to life on the street. A man similar to Mark Rettele was placed in an apartment that was a quick walk from a liquor store. The man resumed drinking and while taking a shower, he passed out in the tub. A building manager found him and called 911. So the caseworker came up with a different plan: an assisted-living center where drinking is not allowed. The man now has a roommate, eats community meals and is trying to stay sober. But just last month a reporter driving downtown on Leavenworth Street spotted him outside slumped on the sidewalk, and leaning against a building.

I have personally witnessed this same type of behavior in friends and family members who struggle with addiction. Some my wife and I have taken into our home when they were facing homelessness. Sadly, in most cases, the addict will return to the street rather than get sober.

Some of the chronic homeless helped by the 100,000 Homes program may try to change but it won’t be easy. In the three months that Mark Rettele has lived at his apartment on South 25th Street, he has endured a near-eviction and a break-in. Many longtime homeless people such as Rettele, who built friendships on the streets, want to help their friends and invite them in. But in Rettele’s case, Rice said, she had to tell him it was either keep your apartment to yourself or go join your friends on the street. Rettele is working on that problem. He told his friends, “You have to leave.” Rettele said.  “I’m not here to take care of everyone.”

I only wish that more families could get assistance from programs like HPRP and the 100,000 Homes program, but I guess it only proves that the squeaky wheel really does get the grease. Because while the chronic homeless may be the most visible and have the greatest impact on downtown businesses and services; the homeless families have become invisible – and yet you see them every day – in the grocery store; at the gas station; and at your children’s school.

For more information about homeless families visit

(Some of the information reprinted with permission from WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER Erin Grace)

(Reprinted with permission from Siena/Francis House Fall Newsletter)

Creighton University Students get to know homeless over dinner

Every Monday evening, a group of Creighton University students spend time at the Siena/Francis House as part of a “Weekly Service Site” program, organized by Creighton’s Center for Service & Justice. However, the “service” that these students provide to guests at the shelter is much different than the normal volunteering at the Siena/Francis House. Instead of serving dinner to the shelter guests, (as most volunteers do) these students sit down and have dinner with them.

While sharing the meal that has been prepared that evening, the students engage in conversation with the homeless families and individuals. And, in doing so, these students’ own perception of homelessness – and of who is homeless – is often challenged.

Will Rutt, a Creighton student coordinator of this project states that, “By listening to the folks at dinner it really puts a human face on people who are homeless, and how similar I am to them. My time here at the Siena/Francis House has really highlighted that we share many of the same passions, interests and dreams. I’ve just been given more opportunities to fulfill those dreams.”

After dinner, the students head to a nearby conference room, where they spend another half hour listening to participants of the residential “Miracles” recovery program at the Siena/Francis House. The recovery program participants share with the students their own personal stories of how they ended up at the Siena/Francis House and what they are learning (and changing) about themselves while they are here. The recovery program participants end their talk by sharing with the students their hopes, dreams and plans for the future, after graduating from the recovery program.

Clearly, the Creighton students who come to the Siena/Francis House as part of this weekly visit are also very much changed, as a result of their experience. Another student coordinator, Elizabeth Samson states that, “After listening to people share their stories, I’m reminded that the negative stigma attached to persons suffering from addiction isn’t fair…or really who these people are. There is so much more to a person than that. These stories continue to prove to me that there is a true commonality between each of us, despite the experiences that we’ve had.”

This student-led partnership between Creighton University and the Siena/Francis House has been in existence for over ten years, and is popular with Creighton students. Each week there are students who show up who had never participated, prior, along with others who are “regulars”.

Regardless of how many times a Creighton student might stop by on any given Monday evening, there is no doubt that this experience is education that the students will not find inside a classroom. Student coordinator, Jennifer Lambrecht, shares that “Statistics and figures that quantify problems within our society are fine, but they don’t compare to the lessons I’ve learned from other persons’ life experiences. There is no question that I’ve grown as a person from my time spent at the Siena/Francis House.”

Exercising a policy of unconditional acceptance, the Siena/Francis House is dedicated to providing  services to the poor and homeless and refer to them as guests rather than clients or residents – giving them the respect and dignity they deserve.  All of the services  at Siena/Francis House are provided at no cost to its guests.

Founded in 1975, the Siena/Francis House is Nebraska’s largest shelter and is located in three facilities at 17th & Nicholas Streets in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. The Siena/Francis House provides emergency overnight shelter to men, women, and women with children. The Siena/Francis House also provides food to the homeless through its Meal Provider Program, clothing, and case management outreach services through its day services program. Additionally, the Siena/Francis House operates a residential addiction recovery program aptly named the “Miracles” Treatment Center.

Click here to find out how you can get involved in helping the Siena/Francis House.

By Erin Grace


A federal program that helps fund emergency shelters and food pantries has been slashed, resulting in major cuts to states like Nebraska and Iowa that have relatively low unemployment rates. The National Emergency Food & Shelter Board Program took a 40 percent hit nationally. That led to cuts in local grants. News of the cuts, which hit this week, will force Omaha-area homeless shelters and agencies that serve the poor to make up the difference.

“Fundraising’s not going gangbusters this time of the year,” said Mike Saklar, who runs Omaha’s largest shelter, the Siena-Francis House at 1702 Nicholas St. “With the economy and uncertainty, it’s going to be hard to replace money like that.” Saklar’s shelter stands to lose about $40,000 from Douglas County’s loss of direct funds, but could see some of that trickle back through the overall state pool for the program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For the first time in anyone’s recollection, Douglas County is getting zero direct FEMA homeless dollars, down from $205,000 last year. The county will be able to compete for some dollars from the state pool. Nebraska is slated to get about $250,000, with about $10,000 earmarked for Scotts Bluff County. That’s the lowest amount Nebraska has received since 1996 and less than half of what it got last year. Funds can be used for food, shelter, rent or mortgage payments, utility bills and repairs to shelters.

The same scenario is playing out in Iowa, where its largest county, Polk, home to Des Moines, got zero direct FEMA homeless dollars and had to compete with the rest of the state for its state pool. David Dischler, who runs the Des Moines-based Iowa Institute for Community Alliances and sits on the state set-aside committee, said two-thirds of Iowa’s 99 counties won’t get FEMA funding and that Des Moines will take a 70 percent hit. He said that will force his agency, which acts as the bank in doling out the FEMA dollars, to “throw some grantees off the bus.”

Dischler has worked with this federal program since its inception in 1983 as part of a federal jobs stimulus bill. He said the program was started to address what was then seen as an emergency-only issue, homelessness. That’s how it became part of FEMA. But as years went on, he said, homelessness was seen as a more pervasive, complex problem and one that affected not just down-and-out men with substance abuse or mental health problems but women, children and families. Dischler said it’s one of the easier federal grant programs to run and therefore helps a lot of smaller nonprofits with little budget for overhead. But this year, federal funding for the program was cut from $200 million in 2010 to about $120 million. It could be a sign of what’s to come in an era of federal belt-tightening.

Criteria for the FEMA homeless funds have always included poverty and unemployment rates. This year, local communities receiving direct funding had to match or exceed an 11.5 percent unemployment rate and a 14.4 percent poverty rate. Douglas County’s rates were 5.1 percent unemployment and 9.8 percent poverty. Theresa Christensen of the Salvation Army in Omaha said that charity faces a loss of nearly $13,000, half of which went to food. “Almost $7,000 worth of food is a lot of food,” said Christensen, homeless and behavioral health services director. “Our food pantry (visits) are up 25 percent, and like everybody, we’re struggling to keep up with the need.”

Reprinted with permission

Among the many challenges poor and homeless Americans often face is access to clean drinking water and restroom facilities. Add to that the public misconception that the homeless and poor are either lazy, addicted to drugs and alcohol, have some sort of mental illness, or all of the above, and you have a prescription for personal failure. Denial of basic needs like access to clean drinking water violates international human rights standards, according to a report issued by a United Nations investigator earlier this year.

A United Nations Special Reporter on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation visited the United States in late February, 2011 at the invitation of the U.S. government and it was discovered that  homeless individuals around the country not only struggle to access running water and restroom facilities but increasingly face criminal and civil sanctions when they improvise solutions.

The right to safe drinking water and restroom facilities is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The U.N. report’s findings detail just a few of the ways that U.S. cities and counties are failing to meet these obligations because of how they deal with homelessness.

Although the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that homelessness grew very little between 2009 and 2010, their report shows that there were still 700,000 individuals in the U.S. who were homeless. This number is a less than accurate total since many of the homeless make sure that they are not found by volunteers who perform the count. The HUD report found that the share of families who lack a place to sleep continued to grow during the recession. The elevated unemployment rate and the large number of foreclosures have increased demand for services to the poor and homeless but city and state budget problems have led to a reduction in those services. As a result, many communities are confronting an increasingly visible homeless population forced to sleep in city parks or take up residence in one of a growing number of tent cities.

Some cities have begun to regulate tent cities and in many cities, developers, businesses, and city councils have clashed with the homeless. Some have even encouraged police to issue tickets for violations such as sleeping in public and loitering. Others have begun shutting off the water supply to nearby water fountains and locking or removing public restroom facilities in an effort to discourage homeless individuals and families from taking shelter in the growing tent cities.

Rather than doing good things like providing more housing, more shelter, and more assistance, cities are using current laws and ordinances, normally not enforced, to push the homeless problem out of view.

In Omaha, where I live, community leaders as well as the police department do much to alleviate the struggles of the poor and homeless. But in many other cities the people who are supposed to be helping the homeless are the very ones who work against them.

An article that was written by a homeless blogger in NYC wrote in his blog, of the same name, that homeless people are treated just like criminals. He goes on to describe his personal experience with a homeless shelter in Manhattan. “At the corner of the building hangs a sign pointing to the entrance: ‘Intake and Vagrancy Control’ it reads. Upon entering all items must be removed from pockets, belts and watches removed and put in trays for x-ray. Then the ‘clients’ (as residents are duplicitously called) pass through a metal detector and are whisked with a wand if anything beeps. A combination of DHS, (Department of Homeless Services) police, and rent-a cops patrol every inch of the place and one is never out of the view of security at any time, except when in a bunk room – but the bunk rooms have no locks or latches. “You watch your s*t here, boy”, said a guard to me. “We’ve got crooks and scammers and pimps and drug runners and more in here. You watch your s*t all the time!” he said in regard to anything I might be carrying. It applies to your behavior as well.”

The writer is a 55 year old white male with a university degree, decent clothing, and a nice looking watch, and basically a target for anyone who wants a buck, a cigarette, or a new piece of whatever he owns. He has had two sweaters stolen after having mistakenly left them out to dry on top of his locker after a light rain.

He says that “the homeless (of which there are two for over 400 residents in this shelter) are routinely yelled at, barked at and told to “line up single file” for the elevator, sign in before 10pm to reserve your bed, and then be in that bed, at precisely 10 – or you will lose the bed and be booted out of the facility, not to return for at least 30 days.”

In many homeless shelters across the country residents are forced to see a case worker who is assigned to help, but in a lot of cases what they do is evaluate them. The institutional logic here is plain and simple: If you are homeless, there must be something wrong with you. Not with the system, not with the economy, not with the law. Millions of people get by without accessing the social services in the US and if you have to, then there must be something wrong with you. The system has the right to have you psychologically evaluated, and if you decline the invitation you will simply be booted out – and denied all manner of public assistance including food stamps, cash assistance and Medicaid. (In an insane world, only the sane man is thought to be insane)

Although there are many social workers who work diligently and honestly to help the poor and homeless, the system in many cities only serves to promote the perception that something is wrong with them and they must be watched carefully. After all, it’s tax payer money at work here. Ironically, it is somehow ignored that many of these homeless people have worked hard most of their lives and have previously paid those same taxes.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty is planning a series of cases to challenge ordinances that criminalize activities — such as using the restroom, sleeping or accessing water — that cannot be avoided or handled in private if a person is homeless. These laws violate international standards and amount to what a U.N. investigator said was cruel and unusual punishment.

And where is the Church in all of this? Should not the Church be the ones to lead the fight against homelessness? If what was done to the homeless in cities across the country were done to the victims of tornados, fires, and earthquakes, there would be an outcry from the religious community as never before. It doesn’t matter how a person became homeless. They remain homeless just the same until they are allowed the basic necessities that most of us take for granted.

Unfortunately, for the most part, the Church has the same misconception about the homeless as the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s not so much alcohol and drugs that brought some to be homeless; maybe it was being homeless that brought some to abuse alcohol and drugs.

Yes, it’s true that Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always.” But neither did He suggest that we sit back and do nothing while the government does the job that He has called us to do. How can we expect the poor to break free from their poverty mindset when we treat them as less than human? Remember that Jesus also said, “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, my brethren, you’ve done it unto me.”

As Hurricane Irene barreled its way up the eastern coast of the U.S., it brought with it brutal gale-force winds, torrential rains and massive flooding of low-lying areas. This comes on the heels of the August 23rd earthquake on the East Coast that unnerved some New Yorkers but did limited damage.

The hurricane that smashed into New Orleans and surrounding area has become immortalized in songs and books and on the evening news. The storm (and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans) killed at least 1,800 people, made tens of thousands homeless, and raised the ire of a public who were outraged by the slow response of both state and federal officials to the crisis.

In the beginning of 2010 a 7.0-magnitude earthquake ravaged Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of the victims still share makeshift camps where they live in one-room “T-Shelters” that are not much more than a tent. There are hundreds of these camps in Haiti, and all of them lack adequate water and sanitation facilities. A March study by the agencies noted that: Only 48 percent of the camp residents had daily access to an adequate supply of potable water; Only 61 percent of that water had the correct amount of chlorine, meaning that it runs the risk of being contaminated by and transmitting cholera; On average, 112 people had to share a single camp latrine; Only 18 percent of camps had hand-washing facilities; and only 29 percent of camps had a disposal system for solid waste.  Although it’s no longer making international headlines, the cholera menace still looms large here. Over 300 people are hospitalized each day, and as of Aug. 8, 2011, 426,285 people had been infected and at least 6,169 have died.

The ongoing tragedy arising from the earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan in March 2011 not only killed 9,000 people and left more than 13,000 missing, but also it created an unprecedented radiation emergency when the plants at Fukushima-Daichi were damaged. More than 200,000 people had to be evacuated from the vicinity of the plants. A few months later on June 8, 2011 a devastating tornado destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and killed 145 people in Joplin, Missouri, leaving neighborhoods in ruins.

So are these just random coincidences? Or is God really trying to tell us something? Evangelist Pat Robertson said the earthquake in Virginia was a sign that we’re closer to the second coming. But he’s also the one who said Haiti suffered its earthquake because they made a pact with the devil.  And he’s the one who said Hurricane Katrina was a result of legalized abortions. Evangelist Jerry Falwell (now deceased) had the nerve to say that the 9-11 terrorist attacks was God punishing our country for homosexuality and feminism.

While some have said that we’ve infuriated God with our gluttony and our wicked, sinful ways, others insist that we should just stop overreacting. And that these preachers can only be described as spiritual bullies. They ridicule them and say, as  Tracy Simmons, editor of, wrote in her online column, CT@Prayer, ” If I’m worshiping a God who sweeps people off the Earth into the ocean to get a message across, then I must be the one who’s confused because I always thought God was a big-picture kinda’ guy.”

God is a big-picture kinda’ guy. As it turns out, I think people are the ones who refuse to see the ‘Big Picture.’  Although it is true that those who do not believe in God nor obey His commands stand condemned by God’s own standards; this is not because they have not believed. It is because they have transgressed against that which they knew to be right. God is not the cause of people’s doom. He is the way out of it!  “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” declares the Sovereign Lord. “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” Ezekiel 18:23  “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”   2 Peter 3:9

During the time of the prophet Ezekiel, individual lives were being shattered, catastrophe had come into homes. People were taken to the land of Babylon and placed in a concentration camp. It was a time of great despair. As we go through the scriptures we find that the Old Testament people of God – more often than not – were under false assurances. They had deluded themselves on many occasions, and when the prophets came to the people with the message from God, all they did was protest. It seemed to go against their lifestyle, everything they held dear. The prophets of God that came to them were a threat.

Today we hear those same protests: “God will not judge us. He has promised to bless us.” All the prophets of the Bible were preachers of repentance. That probably accounts for why most of them were martyred, including the last great prophet, John the Baptist, who lost his head because he was a preacher who stood up for God – when no one else was – and cried: “Repent!” What often happens when people do not repent is, in order for God to drive us to that holy act of repentance, he must first discipline us.

The news media is very good at reporting on all of these disasters and inspire some to point a finger at God and paint Him as some type of heavenly dictator who is out to get revenge on those who don’t obey him. But in reality God only wants what’s best for us – even if it causes pain in the process. There have been some great results from the disasters that the media seems reluctant to report about.

Churches in Haiti now overflow with worshippers, including thousands of people who accepted the Lord after the earthquake there. Though the disaster drove many people to churches out of fear, effective witnessing and discipleship is helping transform that fear into living faith. The slums of Cite Soleil, situated on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, are now alive with song as believers gather in groups of 50 to 200 under tattered tarps and tin-roofed canopies to worship Jesus Christ. Many lost virtually everything in the quake, but their faith made them joyful and strong. A young pastor leads a group of women from his church on afternoon prayer walks along the rutted, dirt roads of Titanyen. They stop and pray along the way, extending their arms toward homes that were often in ruins. “We pray in front of every house, asking for God to bless and comfort the people of our town,” Pastor Merete said. “We thank God for sparing us. Now we need His help to rebuild our lives.”

During the devastating tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo. several churches were destroyed. The ones that survived quickly became shelters and gathering spots for neighbors, friends and loved ones to reunite. Almost instantly churches of different denominations from across the country stepped up to aid the people in Missouri bringing a fresh renewal to the people there.

If we look hard enough we can find God’s blessings because of the disasters, not in spite of them. People tend to turn to God in times of despair and tragedy.  I believe that is God’s plan.  All through the Bible we can read how God used either Israel’s enemies or natural disasters to discipline His people and bring them back to Himself. I don’t believe that has changed.

Let me make myself perfectly clear; I do not believe that all of the natural disasters are the result of a particular sin in a particular place or people. But we cannot put God into a box. We do that sometimes, don’t we? We cannot limit God geographically either. We confine the experience of God to particular places or locations and you can’t do that! You can’t confine Him to a place, whether it is a church or a city or a country. When we say, “‘God cannot do this.” or, “God must do this” – when we place God into our little theological A-B-C, we can miss God’s lesson for us; because sometimes sin will affect his people around the world. Look at the recent violent flash mobs in the U.K. and America. How many innocent people have been affected by the violent acts of others in recent years?

Radio personality Glenn Beck recently declared that Hurricane Irene was a “blessing.” He touts the strong storm lashing on the East Coast of the United States as a harbinger to warn Americans to be prepared for anything and to stock up food. I’m sure that the families devastated by the deaths of their loved ones caused by the storm don’t see it as a blessing anymore than the victims in Haiti, Japan, or Joplin, Missouri do.

Many are wondering what in the world is going on with a rare earthquake hitting the East Coast only to be followed by a hurricane a few days later. Occasionally God really does shake things up as a sign to us of the consequences of disobedience and indifference to our Creator. When people become desperate to find someone who has a vision of the future, sometimes the loud media personalities get the most attention.

There is plenty of suffering to go around; from severe flooding, hurricanes, drought, wildfires and economic insecurity. Instead of shouting about how we need to prepare for the retribution of an angry God we need to humble ourselves, and pray, and seek God’s face, and turn from our wicked ways; then we will hear from heaven, and God will forgive our sin, and heal our land.  (2 Chronicles 7:14)

We need to remember that sin does not affect only one or two individuals. When a person commits the sin of murder it not only affects the perpetrator and the victim, but it also affects the friends and families of both. Any sin always creates a ripple effect that in one way or another affects the lives of many. For those who don’t believe this,  just think of how the sin of greed on Wall Street has affected so many. And think of how the sin of murder affected so many lives for decades when President Kennedy was assassinated.

Yes, I really believe that we are all accountable to a sovereign God, and if we ignore His laws and disobey His commandments, there is a price to pay. God is trying to get our attention but are we listening? What will it take? Will our world have to be turned upside down before we recognize what’s happening? Would even that be enough?