Moving In

Homeless not hard to find, if you know where to look We parked outside what used to be Mac’s Tavern, a forgotten space just north of Cuming on a stretch of 16th Street that’s full of shuttered buildings. The doors were still locked behind iron grates, but Anne Smolsky heard laughter around back. Behind Mac’s, we found a group of eight people seated on a blanket sharing a plastic bottle of vodka. Rob, the group’s de facto leader, was surprised we found them. He’d set up twigs at the two entrances so the group would hear anyone coming. He recognized Smolsky and Robyn Methaney, so we were invited in. Searching the Streets It was the first day — the first 6 a.m. shift — of Omaha Registry Week, a local effort to find and interview the city’s homeless population. Organizers and volunteers hoped to find housing for the most vulnerable folks. I was riding with Methaney and Smolsky, two of almost 75 volunteers helping with the weeklong search. The Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH) hosted the event in collaboration with the national 100,000 Homes campaign. Spearheaded by the New York non-profit Common Ground, the goal is to house 100,000 homeless people nationwide by July 2013. Omaha is home to more than 1,400 homeless people as of January, according to MACCH, which hoped to interview 300 of the people last week. Through one hour of searching, we’d interviewed one. Johnny was sitting outside the Sienna Francis house, 1702 Nicholas St., when we found him. He recognized Methaney immediately from her work at the shelter and agreed to be interviewed. Through the interview, volunteers hope to identify the most vulnerable people by learning how long they’ve been on the streets and if they’re facing serious health, mental or substance-abuse issues. They’re not easy questions, but MACCH Executive Director Erin Porterfield says that’s the point. “Picture going to the emergency room. They’re going to ask you about why you’re there and what you specifically need when you’re hurting,” she says. “Sometimes our community doesn’t do that when it comes to the homeless.” We were ready to talk, we just needed more subjects. We looked most of the morning — checking beneath the bridges in the Gene Leahy Mall, in the brush lining the riverfront, along the railroad tracks behind the old Storz Brewery — but all the regular spots were empty. Smolsky, a veteran of homeless outreach through her work at the Nebraska Aids Project, says locating homeless people in Omaha can be difficult, because many find shelter in abandoned buildings. Entering those buildings can be dangerous, but after another hour of fruitless search, Methaney decided to take a chance. Moving Day Under a faded sign reading “The Friendliest Place in Town,” the group behind Mac’s was holding a mournful celebration. Carla, a 54-year-old woman who has been homeless for more than 15 years, recently found out she has lung cancer. They were there to support her, despite their own problems. Matt has hepatitis. Linda has trouble walking. Bruce’s diabetes is so bad that Methaney quickly arranged to get him to a shelter after our shift. As we started interviews, more members of the homeless community came forward, curious about what was going on. Nothing beyond a $5 McDonalds food card was promised, but the group was eager to share their stories, and nobody seemed to hold back information. At 8 a.m. on a cool Tuesday morning, it really may have been the friendliest place in town. Porterfield wasn’t surprised. “People are generally open with their situations,” she says. “When they have people coming up to them who are friendly, who look them in the eye, they kind of feel cared for.” Over the week, volunteers interviewed 471 people, identifying 176 individuals as vulnerable under the 100,000 Homes index. Five of the most vulnerable candidates have already received housing, including Carla. After 15 years on the streets, she moved into her own apartment last Thursday. Names of the subjects in this story were changed to protect their privacy. For more information on Omaha’s Homeless Registry Week, visit 100khomes.org or macchomeless.org.

posted at 12:34 pm
on Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

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