Since its doors opened
in 1975, Omaha’s nonprofit Siena Francis House has served—day in and day out—individuals in the community who experience homelessness and find themselves in desperate need of emergency shelter, food and clothing.
"We have been able to offer shelter to over 3,500 people a year. We never close," Executive Director and CEO Linda Twomey said. "We have had some very difficult times, but during those times we have kept running and been here for the people in our community who absolutely need us."
In mid-December, the organization dramatically increased its capacity and capabilities by opening a new $18 million, 43,000-square-foot, 450-bed emergency shelter.
It’s been a long time coming, said Rob Wellendorf, who served on the Siena Francis House board of directors for 12 years.
"From the day we opened the Baright Shelter for men in 2005, we were over capacity. We had 220 beds for men, 40 beds for women in a separate building, but way more than 260 people who needed shelter," he said. "For years, we were in a tough situation with personnel and facilities. As soon as the last evening meals were served, we’d put away the tables and chairs and place mats on the floor of the dining room for men to sleep on. And, in the women’s shelter we would place mats on the floor of a number of meeting rooms. The men’s shelter often operated at 75 percent above capacity and the women’s shelter at 100 percent above capacity. Day after day after day after day. There was no break."
The overcrowding is now a thing of the past. The new shelter accommodates the demand for hundreds of men and women needing a safe place to sleep for the night and out of the elements, whether it’s a season of oppressive heat, bitter cold or relentless rain. Having a bed for everyone also serves Siena Francis House’s homeless guests with greater dignity. Plus, the facility expansion represents and supports the organization’s focus on finding permanent housing for clients and addressing some of the root causes of homelessness, Twomey said.
"The new facility really was designed to right-size our capacity, in order to better serve the number of individuals we’d historically already been serving," she explained. "But it also creates some new space—though not new services—for our case managers and community partners to utilize, making it easier for individuals experiencing homelessness to access the services they need in order to leave the shelter and get back into housing."
"This is an extraordinary time of revitalization for the Siena Francis House. It represents an opportunity for new beginnings," Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said. "Under the leadership of Linda Twomey, the focus is on collaboration and partnerships with other social service organizations to help people make the transition from homeless to housing, and from jobless to employment. The shelter provides a safe, respectful and friendly environment for everyone who comes here for help and support. Our goal must be to end homelessness. To some, it may seem unreachable, but each step we take together gets us closer to that goal."
Heritage Services led the fundraising effort for the new facility, which provides separate shelter quarters for women and men. It also contains a commercial kitchen and dining room for three-times-a-day meal service, a centralized clothing room, a drop-off area and storage for material donations from the community, and service offices for staff and community partners.
The space provides for more efficient execution of the spectrum of services offered by Siena Francis House like housing assistance, basic health care, social services navigation, transportation and case management; and for coordinating referred services like mental health support and employment assistance.
"Because there are so many people who are homeless and seeking shelter daily, the additional space allows our case management staff to have ready access to help our guests with their housing plans," Twomey said.
And now that space is no longer an obstacle, there are plans to eventually expand vocational rehabilitation and other services.
"We know part of exiting homelessness, and achieving housing stability, has to do with having a livable income or mainstream benefits like social security to support your housing," Twomey said. "We are trying to do more in that space and grow that area, but we don’t want to duplicate what others do; we want to complement that."
No one turned away
The latest statistics show that in the metro area in 2018, over 60 percent of the more than 5,600 people who experienced homelessness were provided services at Siena Francis House. That included more than 430,000 meals and emergency shelter for 3,435 individuals. In fact, Siena Francis House serves more meals and provides more nights of shelter to individuals experiencing homelessness than any other shelter in the city, state and region.
Charity Navigator, which is the largest independent national evaluator of nonprofit organizations, has awarded a 4-star rating—its highest—to Siena Francis House in recognition of the organization’s commitment to utilizing financial contributions efficiently, ethically and responsibly in its mission to serve the homeless.
The organization’s "low barrier" policy distinguishes it from other shelters and service providers in the community. No one is turned away, regardless of the circumstances behind the person’s need.
"Essentially, we say to the world, ‘If you don’t have any place else to go, come to us. We will serve you. We will make it work," Wellendorf said.
That means welcoming even those viewed as "most difficult to serve," people who are mentally ill and/or chronically addicted. It also means providing services that work toward an end goal of securing housing for the long term.
"As a low-barrier shelter, clients don’t have to demonstrate readiness to be housed," Twomey said. "Our belief is that once you get into housing we’ll wrap services around you and work with community partners to do that. You shouldn’t have to wait to get housing. It’s about meeting you where you’re at."
People who are chronically homeless often have multiple barriers to housing, she added, and setbacks and past trauma can compound the problem.
"We’re trying to be very intentional. Emergency shelter is intervention on a path to getting people back into stable housing," she said.
Seeking housing solutions
As the executive director of MACCH (Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless), Randy McCoy oversees a multiagency community effort to coordinate support services for people who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. Homelessness is an extremely complex issue, he said.
"There are a lot of situations that can lead to housing instability and a housing crisis," McCoy said. Even individuals who’ve sustained stable housing for a lifetime can find themselves in a risky situation due to a spectrum of factors including sudden job loss followed by prolonged unemployment, natural disasters, catastrophic illness, divorce and family separations, domestic violence, mental health crises and addiction. Throughout his career, McCoy has even seen people with abundant educational and personal advantages who’ve nevertheless spiraled into crisis.
"When we’re privileged, successful and stable, we don’t think that a lot of people experiencing homelessness were also that at one point," he said. "You can’t plan for or predict everything."
Many obstacles from transportation challenges to bad credit can also inhibit the possibility of obtaining and retaining housing.
"Once you’ve lost your housing, especially if it’s an eviction, it’s harder to find a landlord willing to work with you," McCoy said. "Especially if it’s happened more than once."
In the worse kind of chicken-and-egg scenario, he added, is that without housing, it’s hard to gain and maintain employment. It’s not easy to perform well in a job interview or put in a productive day’s work when you can’t take a shower every day or get a restful night’s sleep. Some people who are homeless are struggling to keep working.
"We look at a lot of data at MACCH," McCoy said. "For 2017 and 2018 there was about 10 percent of the population who entered shelters who self-reported earning more than $1,500 a month in income. They’re either on a fixed income or working, but they’re still showing up in shelters. So even if you do have a job you still may not be able to find a place to live or afford a place to live."
An overarching problem behind homelessness is a lack of affordable housing in the entire metro area, McCoy said.
"That’s not just for the employed," he said. "There is a dire shortage of housing for individuals on a fixed income. It’s a huge lack of affordable housing across the spectrum. And it’s not a problem unique to Omaha."
"Homelessness is often a lack of affordable housing in a community, not a problem with the individual who is experiencing homelessness," Twomey agreed. "We have many clients who are 45 and older or disabled and on limited incomes who cannot find housing in the Omaha market. That’s a big contributor not only here, but nationally."
MACCH and Siena Francis House and other local organizations are looking at successful housing programs like the Veterans Administration’s voucher-based HUD-VASH program for potential answers and exploring multiple possible solutions. Finding resources is a big piece of the puzzle, because it takes significant time and funding to create affordable housing, McCoy said. MACCH and its partners are also looking at how to make a more immediate impact before emergency shelter is needed.
"What is that intervening step? What can we do to take a household back into an apartment, for instance, so they don’t have to go into a shelter? And how do we ID those people who need a boost, maybe just covering deposits or first month’s rent?" he said.
In 2012, Siena Francis House completed construction of two permanent supportive housing facilities right on the organization’s campus. The organization now provides a total of 48 efficiency apartments to individuals who were once chronically homeless due to a disabling condition. Residents also receive ongoing support services from the organization’s services center. This approach has been a success, but the question is how to grow it.
"We are going to be looking at the role we play in developing more housing in the community and be part of the solution," Twomey said.
Recovery through Miracles
Approximately half of the guests of Siena Francis House are struggling with mental health issues or addiction, which often go hand-in-hand. The organization operates an onsite, residential 79-person Miracles Addiction Treatment and Recovery Program that includes transitional housing, and is administered by state-licensed counselors and mental health therapists.
"The Miracles program is exceptional," Wellendorf said. "If we’re able to treat the addiction and any mental health issues – in addition to providing food and shelter – we’re increasing the impact. When you connect the homeless who are struggling with addiction and/or mental illness with the caring staff in the Miracles program, I think it’s our best opportunity to move people from homelessness to housing."
Rod Bauer, the director of clinical programs at Siena Francis House, has been employed by the organization for nearly 20 years. He’s also a graduate of the Miracles program.
"I arrived June 15, 1999. I had tried treatment before for a heroin and meth addiction. I was serious about recovery and really trying, but addiction is a powerful disease," he said.
Bauer was in his 30s at the time and lost a solid career in the drilling industry due to his addictions. When he connected to Siena Francis House, he was near-homeless and facing likely incarceration. The 12-step program worked for him, and he received treatment for underlying anxiety and depression. Another factor in his recovery was gaining self-worth and value through giving back right at Siena Francis House. His success inspired him to pursue an education in recovery and addiction so he could return to Siena Francis House and help others in their journey to sobriety.
"For people who’ve lost hope, relighting that candle is really difficult. Miracles was and continues to be a really strong 12-step program, based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I believe the 12-step program to be timeless; in my opinion it’s still the best," he said. "But I really feel that Siena Francis House was way ahead of its time as far as being trauma-informed."
Trauma-informed care means considering past trauma in an effort to understand behaviors and related coping mechanisms—like substance use as self-medicating—when treating a client. Looking at past circumstances is emphasized over past choices. "Their trauma could have started at a time when they were very young, and over which they had no control." Bauer said. "As counselors/therapists, instead of asking ourselves, ‘Why are (clients) like that?’ we ask, ‘What trauma did they experience that influences their current behavior?’"
Bauer also emphasized that Siena Francis House’s low-barrier shelter philosophy is shared by the Miracles program. Individuals struggling with addiction may be ineligible to enter treatment elsewhere because they can’t afford it or even cover the cost of an addiction evaluation. Others may have been in a previous treatment center but were discharged because they struggled with program expectations, or had a slip-up. Cost and active addictions are not barriers to the Miracles program.
"Turning away an intoxicated person is like telling a person they’re too sick to come to the hospital," Bauer said.
The Miracles program is successful because treatment plans are individualized for each participant and because it utilizes the enduringly successful principles of AA. Additionally, the program staff stays up-to-date on best practices, allowing Miracles to continue to offer promising new therapies.
"We know a lot more about the causes of addiction now, and there are a lot of new ways to work on training the brain," Bauer said. "The foundation is still 12-step, although we continue to add new treatments for those who need them."
Compassion and responsibility
It could be easy for secure and prosperous people to turn their back on the issue of homelessness, but it affects the community at large, Wellendorf said.
"Studies show it is more costly to have people on the streets than for them to be housed," he said, adding that the costs of public infrastructure resources like health care via hospital emergency rooms, or law enforcement related to minor offenses like trespassing and loitering are hard to see, but significant. "It’s almost an ounce of prevention situation."
But, he added, compassion for the downtrodden and a moral obligation to help other human beings is even more important.
"In a country that figured out how to split an atom and put someone on the moon, and built the largest economy the world has ever seen, and all the fantastic things we have done and do every day—it is still sad to think that there are literally hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of people every year who don’t have a place to sleep," he said. "We have an obligation to take care of others."
"It’s the right thing to do for people, at the end of the day," Twomey said. "It’s a basic responsibility that we have towards our neighbor, to make sure people are safe and have a safe place to live. Homelessness is a really complex problem. As citizens of this great country, no one wants to have fellow Americans and neighbors living on the streets. It’s deadly. Providing services is the right thing to do, and it’s another way to combat poverty in our communities. Homelessness is a sign or symptom of poverty; this is the front door to treating poverty."
A calling to help
Everyone can do something to help. Siena Francis House provides all homeless services at no cost to those who find themselves in need, so the organization relies primarily on the generosity of the community for operational expenses. The website (www.SienaFrancis.org) provides more information on how to make a financial contribution or donate material goods. Volunteers are always needed for serving meals, helping to sort donated clothing and personal care items, and even assisting with projects and special events.
"I think we’re called to help people, and we can all make a difference," Wellendorf said. He first volunteered for Siena Francis House as a college student dishing up meals, and was recruited later to share his professional financial expertise as a member of the board of directors. "We are serving a population that is unknown by many. Once people recognize or have an awareness that the Omaha area has a tremendous homeless population, how do you ignore it? How could you not want to make a difference in a person’s life? When you help even one person, it’s totally worth it."
~ Randy McCoy
Executive Director, Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless