By Addie Costello
Carl Mitchell squinted as he peered down the sun soaked streets for signs of his bus on the afternoon of July 2. Mitchell stood over 6 feet tall with faded tattoos, one of a teardrop below his eye and another of a lipstick stain on his neck. He waited in 80 degree weather at a bus stop across the street from the downtown branch of the Omaha Public Library, where he would normally take refuge from the heat.
“When I was in the shelters and wanted to get away from everybody, I chilled in there just to get some air, read a book or something,” Mitchell said.
However, like all other branches of the Omaha Public Library, the W. Dale Clark Library was not welcoming visitors because of COVID-19. Since March 16, the libraries have had to shut their doors and leave individuals experiencing homelessness without the public restrooms, drinking water, internet access and air-conditioning they once provided.
Mitchell was waiting for the bus to take him to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he has an apartment provided by Heartland Family Services. Having access to stable housing has made him less reliant on library services, but the downtown library still helped him pass his hour-long wait for the bus, Mitchell said.
“The Omaha Public libraries have been a safe place of refuge for people experiencing homelessness,” said Candace Gregory, president and CEO of the Open Door Mission.
The Open Door Mission, a homeless shelter located in downtown Omaha, closed its doors to day-time visitors due to COVID-19 and is only serving people looking for emergency shelter.
“Many resources have become nonexistent including nonprofits not open or working online; public transportation is sporadic, housing options limited, employment and academic opportunities not available,” Gregory said.
Public libraries provided clean water, public restrooms and an escape from the heat that is not easy to find in downtown Omaha, Gregory said.
“The website is kind of our hub right now; it is our only branch that is technically open,” said Omaha Public Library Marketing Director, Emily Getzschman.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that between 2014 and 2018, 12.2% of Omaha households were without computers, and 18.8% were without a broadband subscription. Those who relied on the library for internet access are encouraged to connect to library wifi from the parking lot of all locations, but for the most part, have been referred to other resources, Getzschman said.
“It’s not pleasant outside for them to be sitting out in our parking lot, I mean it might work a little bit, but it’s not ideal so we’ve been referring them elsewhere for the most part,” Getzschman said.
Getzschman did not want to comment on the library closures’ effect on the unsheltered population of Omaha. Mayor Jean Stothert will decide when the libraries will re-open and not library staff, Getzschman said.
“We do have to figure how to safely create an experience for patrons as they come back, so that is what our staff is figuring out,” Getzschman said. “We also have to figure out how many hours and locations we can operate based on the staff that we currently have which is only our full-time staff because our part-time staff has all been furloughed.”
The library closures were one in a series of blows to the unsheltered population of Omaha, said Randy McCoy, executive director of the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless.
“Having the libraries continue to be shut down and having people not being able to access that kind of place to go during the day just continues to present problems,” McCoy said. “Right now it’s just trying to figure out how we fill those gaps. Hopefully, the libraries or other places start to open back up soon.”
Douglas County has had 94 COVID-19 deaths, and just 51% of people who tested positive for the virus in the county have made full recoveries, as of July 5 according to the Douglas County Health Department. The county’s homeless population will be at risk of not only the virus, but the dangers of the summer heat, McCoy said.
“With COVID coming on in March you have April to maybe even part of June where the weather wasn’t too bad,” he said. “It’s very inconvenient, and it’s not good, but it’s not potentially life-threatening.”
Heatstroke, heat exhaustion, sunburns and mosquito bites are all issues individuals experiencing homelessness face which could get worse with the closures of many indoor spaces like libraries, McCoy said.
“It’s not just a July and August issue, as we start to creep into fall, and then winter if we’re still in the same kind of situation then you start talking about frostbite exposure, hypothermia,” McCoy added.
Before the effects of COVID-19, The Stephen Center would encourage residents to search for employment, at places like libraries, or attend programs on topics like financial literacy, said Teri Corcoran, chief development officer at the Stephen Center.
“The real impact is that we’ve just had more people on campus, and they get bored, they get totally bored so we’ve had to institute game stations and all sorts of things just to try to keep everyone happy and busy,” Corcoran said.
Once The Stephen Center reopened after a temporary pause in intakes because of COVID-19, they were full in a week, Corocan said. She only expects the need for shelter to rise in the coming weeks as unemployment runs out and evictions increase.
“With business being closed or limited it has been tough,” Corocan said, “There have been more people on campus every single day.”