As winter takes hold the number of homeless moving into shelters is on the rise. Winter is the toughest time of the year and emergency shelters are focused on the most basic needs. The seasonal surge will test a budding framework helping Omahans without a place to go to recover their lives and find a home.

On the evening of Jan. 25, from 10 p.m. to midnight, seasoned outreach staff will hit Omaha streets, trying to count the number of people sleeping “rough” – outside, in cars and in buildings not meant for human habitation. Required by the federal Housing & Urban Development agency, the count also helps start a trusting relationship, paramount to linking the homeless with services.

The count from that night is added to the estimated 6,000 individuals served by Omaha-Council Bluff’s twenty-two homeless service agencies. As more data is collected and recorded in a new Home Management Information Service (HMIS), early results point to results for ending chronic homelessness, but also a need that has never been more acute.

Dinner time at the Siena/Francis house was buzzing and packed. Children, barely five years of age, were running around trying to find mothers. Many were looking for someone to talk to and others were just looking for a place to be left alone.

“Our mission is to care for poor people through housing, food and clothing but there’s a bigger picture,” said CEO Michael Saklar. “I don’t think just putting a roof over someone’s head is the limit of anyone’s program. [there’s] likely a root problem.”

“We’ve got one of the largest chemical addiction treatment programs in the state,” Saklar continued matter of factly. “So many have addictions. We provide a lot of mental health programs.

“Everyone is a unique case,” he explained. “[For] the women and families that come here, my gut feeling is that most are involved in domestic violence. I’ve seen horrible things. I’ve seen the State Patrol pick up women and kids off the interstate that were thrown out of a car. We try within 48 hours to have a case manager assigned to any woman that shows up.

“Just moving people along isn’t doing them any help.” 

The healthcare system can catch many homeless, but just as quickly put them out.

“When I see people having open heart surgery and a week later they’re sleeping in a homeless shelter, I’m thinking something’s wrong here,” said Saklar. “A nursing home is dropping off people with no legs. I’ve seen people where we put all their food into a blender, where they pull out their stomach and feed themselves with a syringe.

“And they’re in a homeless shelter?”

The Siena/Francis House for all intents and purposes is the last stop when you have nowhere to go in Omaha. The vast array of individuals they see is ever changing and so a big part is to have a diverse range of services and partners. With 796 emergency beds, homeless shelters for individuals operated at 120 percent capacity on average in 2010, for families the number was 83 percent. SFH works with the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH), which coordinates a broad range of services to permanently end chronic homelessness and a collaborative network that includes homeless service agencies and government programs.

The challenge can be amorphous.

“The last week of January every year we count the number of homeless,” explained Executive Director Erin Porterfield. “Last year it was 1,580 people combined with living on the street, emergency shelters and transitional housing shelters. It did not allow us to count the numbers of homeless living in jail, hospitals, and treatment facilities, so we know that number is small compared to what the real number would be. This snapshot helps us to understand what we’re doing well and what we need to do better.”

From 2009 to 2010 the annual homelessness rate increased by 9% in the Omaha metro while chronic homelessness decreased by 7%.  Nearly half of the homeless suffer from serious mental illness or substance abuse. Economic hardship, relationship breakdowns and moving from out-of-state are three primary reasons cited for being homeless. The data is made possible by the task force and HMIS, and it’s just a start.

“The needs are different.” Porterfield described. “If you have a single person, you have Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you have a family, that’s something else altogether and all of the challenges and chaos with all of that. It takes focus and attention and persistence on behalf of the people aiming to end homelessness. It makes more sense if we can prevent homelessness in the first place.”

Intake, Treatment, Training

Most homeless go through SFH’s day services center. “It’s a service center with staff that’s helping people with whatever they need,” said Saklar. “We purchase a couple hundred birth certificates a year. Help them get I.D. cards. So many homeless people have lost everything. So you have to start from the beginning.

“The biggest success is that we’ve helped about 420 individuals achieve permanent housing.”

Creating a transition to move into permanent housing and stay out of homelessness is a long-term program, starting with treatment and employment.

“The really important one is treatment,” said Saklar. “We try to make them ready to integrate back into the community. We have a lot of confidence in this. It’s not a 45-day hospital stay.”

The average length of stay for a male graduate last year was about ten and a half months in intensive treatment.  For females the average is over twelve months.

“What we found is the longer they’re with us, the better chance they have,” said Saklar. “This type of treatment is a huge cost savings to the community.”

Employment training starts with the center’s operations.

“We have about 110 men and women in employment training that work for us to help us operate our facilities and the programs,” continued Saklar. “We’re talking about people that have terrible, horrible work histories and lack of skills. If someone’s washing dishes for six months and then not working for a couple of years and then in prison for a couple of years, how do they overcome all of that?”

“Every person who graduates from our program becomes employed,” he added. “They get affordable housing and a lot of people get transportation through donated vehicles . . . broad pieces of someone’s life that help them succeed.

“There’s employers out there who respect and recognize what we’re doing. Some have hired multiple people. When you’re sitting in a job interview, how do you explain not working for three years? Some are dysfunctional, physical abuse or sexual abuse. These are hurdles to overcome but they can do it. The results are out there.”


MACCH’s network of services aims to prevent a slide backwards. “We provide housing and support, whatever that means,” said Porterfield.  “That could mean financial support, that could mean medical care, substance abuse treatment. The goal is to house them with the support that they need. The toughest people first, most extreme need first.”

From helping the homeless first into transitional housing and then permanent supportive housing, new programs aim for rapid rehousing, aiming to prevent homelessness before it gets too complicated. HMIS reports over 1,400 persons staying out of homeless through these programs.

“One of the challenges is having housing accessible and helping them get into housing swiftly so whatever financial assistance to do that,” said Porterfield. “A deposit, a first month’s rent, a bed, a truck to haul the bed to the new house and to make sure the food is in place. You also have staff challenged to make sure that people are fed and that people have a place to sleep.”

By the task force’s measurement, approximately 12% of those placed into permanent housing return to homelessness. An estimated 1,200 housing units are still needed to meet the demand for permanent supportive housing.

HMIS is the first step in ending chronic homelessness. “The performance measure task force . . . is trying to understand all the stuff that we’re doing,” explained Porterfield. “How many people return to homelessness? What are we doing right and what can we do better?”

The focus of these programs over the long term is to bring down the yearly count and there’s several ways to get involved.  “There are lots of opportunities for action. Money is nice and there are so many other things that can make a difference, whether it’s one-to-one or a system wide change,” said Porterfield. “It might be employing or donating goods or labor or coordinating an effort for move-in kits and asking stores or hotels for linens and beds. It’s really concrete things like that.”

MACCH has several task forces set up to combat homelessness beyond monetary donations. The task forces range from focusing on youth homelessness to measuring the yearly count. To find out more go to

The Siena/Francis house has ways to volunteer on their website at That includes meals, gatherings, fundraising or financial contributions.

The Reader is looking for stories of volunteers working with the homeless.  If you’ve volunteered or know someone who has please send an email to

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