Photo illustration of a homeless individual. Photo courtesy of Upsplash.

As the world locked down and Omaha prepared for a creeping pandemic to arrive, the area’s homeless shelters braced for impact.

They prepped with sanitizers and personal protective equipment, figured out how to socially distance and protect their older, immunocompromised residents. Now, more than a month later, they’re still scrambling. 

“It’s not sustainable without volunteers, if I can be honest,” said Candace Gregory, president and CEO of Open Door Mission. “I am hoping, I am praying that there’s some level of, I don’t want to say normalcy because I don’t know what that looks like going forward but we truly need volunteers to have some relief and we need volunteers to function with quality care.”

Staff are doing work typically done by thousands of volunteers annually, now staying home to limit activity inside the shelter. Even with cutting programming, it’s still a struggle to keep the facilities functional amid relatively unchanged levels of residents that could increase dramatically in the future.

Open Door Mission which is usually at or close to capacity, is serving slightly more than its full 917 beds, with extra people sleeping on mats inside its chapel, Gregory said. Siena Francis House, which has never reached capacity, is at normal levels with about 90 beds for men and 35 beds for women open daily, according to Development Director Tim Sully. 

Currently no one has tested positive at either shelter, according to Sully and Gregory.

Siena Francis House did see an increase from 65 to 94 men who had never stayed there seeking shelter in the six weeks since March 13 compared to the six weeks prior. The number of women in similar situations remained the same, Sully said.

Open Door Mission has also helped 13 families stay housed by providing them financial assistance to pay rent and other bills. Gregory said another 17 families and 26 individuals were also able to leave the shelter for stable housing, even during the pandemic.

But those numbers may not be indicative of the pandemic’s impact on housing security, said Randy McCoy, executive director for the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless.

“The longer it drags out and the more months people go unemployed or underemployed, that number could increase significantly,” McCoy said.

Early action to delay or put moratoriums on evictions are helping to keep people housed, but months from now  people could face insurmountable rent and bill payments. Keeping people caught up has become the prime focus of MACCH, pronounced “match,” which acts as an umbrella for more than 100 organizations providing homelessness assistance. 

Shelters in Douglas, Sarpy and Pottawatamie counties, serve about 1,065 people daily. In its 2019 point-in-time count, the organization found 1,405 people were homeless, McCoy said. MACCH estimates about 5,000 different people experience some form of homelessness throughout the year.

The organization is looking into dollars from Housing and Urban Development as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, McCoy said. It also launched a new program months ahead of schedule to save people teetering between housing security and emergency shelter.

Through Housing Problem Solving, a person’s first point of contact with the organization becomes a conversation about immediate solutions. That can be anything from help with rent to solving roommate issues, McCoy said.

As they build up that program, MACCH is also trying to stay connected with housing assistance providers across the metro to make sure people are ready if and when needs increase.

“It’s preplanning and trying to get ahead of it,” said McCoy, “being more proactive about those pots of money to see what they can be used for as opposed to waiting and seeing, ‘Oh are 500 people going to show up or 10,000 people going to show up.’”

For now Omaha’s homeless shelters are still struggling to meet immediate needs as donations have dropped and help has disappeared.

At Open Door Mission that’s meant cutting back nearly all programming as staff take turns serving food, cleaning, answering the phones and running daycare for the more than 100 children living there. Typically much of that work is handled by 15,000 people who volunteer annually, Gregory said. 

Siena Francis House has an ongoing list of their critical and daily needs, including food donations which have gone down, Sully said. That’s a problem when you’re trying to feed a population that goes through about 4,200 eggs and 800 pounds of coffee a month. In that time, they also eat their way through 1,500 pounds of produce which has lately become a lot harder to find.

“Our kitchen manager every time I ask him says, ‘We need canned or fresh vegetables,’” said Sully. “Every time I ask him.”

But even as help in some areas has slowed, the community has stepped up to make sure these facilities get the masks and hand sanitizer they need.

Siena Francis House started receiving boxes packed with hand sewn cloth masks. Before long there was one available for every staff member and resident, Sully said. The facility now has about 800 washable masks which staff distribute through a pick-up and drop off program at the front of the building.

At Open Door Mission, providing residents with hand sanitizer was a concern at the start. Then Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium sent them extra hand washing stations.

Both shelters have also set up quarantine zones to limit spread. Anyone entering Open Door Mission off the street has to spend 14 days isolating in either the men’s or women’s facility. Gregory said they’d had more than 100 people quarantine in those areas which each have 30 beds. 

Siena Francis House set up a quarantine zone as well as instituting a shelter-in-place policy in early April stating that anyone who leaves the facility must wait two weeks before returning and after that they’ll screen people who enter.

So far it seems to be working as no one in the facilities have tested positive for covid-19, according to both Sully and Gregory. 

And that’s good because the demographics inside both shelters lean older and many have health conditions predisposing them to infection.

“It would go like wildfire through our population,” Gregory said.

What Gregory wants more than anything, however, is to be able to move beyond meeting people’s basic needs and provide them a higher level of care, specifically offering hope for the future. In 26 years at Open Door Mission, Gregory said she’s always been able to offer people solutions through programs at her facility or others around the area. But right now she can’t.

“It’s discouraging because when you have somebody who’s ready to address their issues or improve their situation, you can’t offer them the solutions,” Gregory said. “That’s the hard part.”

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Chris Bowling

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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