Muddying Omaha's high quality of life rankings are pockets of chronic poverty and growing new poor populations.
Identifiable impoverished sections, homeless communities and shelters exist, but most poverty here is insidious and invisible. It's even in the suburbs. Thus, the title of a new documentary, Out of Frame: Unseen Poverty in the Heartland. It premieres November 12 at 6:30 p.m. at Aksarben Cinema. A panel discussion follows.
Surreal Media Lab owner Jason Fischer made the film for Together, a nonprofit that assists people out of poverty, hunger and homelessness into self-sufficiency and sustainable living. The project resonates with Fischer, who grew up in a poor, single-parent household.
"My mom never made a big deal about it," he says. "I didn't know how poor we were until I started thinking back, Oh, that's why we ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches or pancakes for dinner. We shopped at Goodwilll, That's what you did. You learn those survival skills. It was a mindset my mom had that she never let it be known we're doing so bad. That was her superpower."
Interviewing clients and caseworkers for the film, Fischer's learned the local poverty landscape.
"It doesn't feel like there's a huge homeless sector here but the line between poverty and homelessness is fairly thin. That's what you hear – that having a roof over your head and not having a roof over your head might just be a matter of days. It's the working poor who are most vulnerable – the folks barely cutting it and living paycheck to paycheck."
It's someone like Rodgers, whose lack of living wage job skills puts him in precarious straits with advancing age and no nest egg or safety net. Or Air Force veteran Vernon Louis Muhammad, who suffered a severe work-related injury that prevented him from holding a job. His health issues and lost income, combined with a divorce, began a cascade that resulted in him losing his home and nearly everything else. As he recovers a semblance of his old life he helps other disabled and homeless vets find their footing, too.
Takina Humphrey lost her children to foster care when she went into treatment for meth addiction but since getting sober she's reunited with them and working hard to make ends meet.
Fischer says he's struck by "the variations and gradations of all the situations," adding, "I want to give a face and add humanity to the complexities of poverty and homelessness, It's not what you imagine. It's not about the person who just gave up. It's not just black and white. It's not just the people down by the river and the railroad tracks. It may be a neighbor or a person at your church or someone at the grocery store. That's the unseen part of it, even though it might be in plain view. And when we do see it, we avert our eyes."
Together executive director Mike Hornacek says the problem in Omaha "is definitely not unemployment – we have one of the country's lowest unemployment rates – it's underemployment." He adds, "We have a huge socio-economic divide in our community. We have tons of white collar professionals doing extremely well and then another huge blue collar, service-oriented population making $8 or $9 an hour. We're missing that large segment of $16 to $18 an hour skilled trade sector jobs. So we're seeing a trickle down effect of all kinds of people asking for help and services that never had to ask before."
For example, he says nearly half of Millard public schools students are on free and reduced lunch – an indicator that struggles are not confined to the inner city. In this era of excessive cost of living and flat wages and salaries, he says one unforeseen disruptive event or major expense finds many families "suddenly teetering on the edge of working poor and needing to use a food pantry."
Clients exhibit a gamut of causes and needs.
"Walking through our door on a daily basis is really a sliding scale of severity. On the minor side it's somebody who needs to use a pantry for the first time. It may just be once. Maybe hings got tight at the end of the month with a high heating bill and the family couldn't afford groceries. Not a lot of support services need to be involved.
"In the middle range is a single mom working two jobs, making minimum wage or more, doing the best she can, living paycheck to paycheck. Then her car needs repairing so she can continue going to work to support her family. She uses the rent money for the car and it turns into a snowball that sees her evicted. She comes to Together and we pay the back rent, supply one month to move forward and discuss budget. We cover basic skills to make sure she and her family are sustainable after we provide the help.
"On the extreme end, in a very severe crisis, you have somebody literally homeless or really close to homeless. maybe with PTSD syndrome and needing serious intervention just to be able to regain housing and sustain that on their own. They might need six to 12 months of intense case management to stabilize that living situation and ensure they are mentally stable and getting the right supports.
"The more near you get to homeless and the more years you live in poverty for generations a lot of times the root cause has to do with mental illness and behavioral health."
Fischer's discovered that just as many things trigger poverty "different variables go into creating stability." "Stability comes through support groups, caring and community. No one organization does everything by itself. Several working interdependently, each doing its part, is really the key. That's how Together came to be and true to its name it works collaboratively. That's the strength of it."
Hornacek says,"In a lot of those more medium to severe situations we can provide resources until we're blue in the face but we're not going to create any significant or lasting change unless we address those underlying issues and that comes through case management and connecting people to support services that help with mental health, medical needs, substance abuse and things like that.
"It is very complex. It is not one silver bullet that fixes the problem. And the person or family you're trying to help has to want the help."
But it's first things first.
"It's really unrealistic for us to expect individuals to just make those radical changes unless their basic needs are taken care of. Once past that threshold money doesn't fix the problem...Then it's all about education, guidance, mentoring and helping somebody work a plan to get where they want to go."
Fischer is grateful to those who shared their struggles on film.
"They're very courageous people for sharing their stories. I was surprised they were as open as they were. When you can see someone that hasn't given up and is still pushing and still believes, and the hope they have, that's inspiring. If that person's still trying, then I have no excuses ."
Hornacek says he commissioned the film as an "advocacy tool." He adds, "I hope people walk away with a better understanding that we do have some significant, pervasive issues in the greater Omaha area. We need to address families living in poverty and the economic divide. These things have repercussions" – educational deficits, health problems, criminal activities,
"If we don't get a handle on it, its going to get dramatically worse."
Then the problem won't remain hidden anymore.
The November 12 screening is part of Together's gala fundraiser. Tickets are $35 per person or $60 for two. Visit www.AksarbenCinema.com or http://togetheromaha.org/.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.