Lincoln’s rising homeless population struggle with cold temperatures

Story, photos and video by C.L. Sill, NewsNetNebraska

The first snow of the year was falling on a late November Thursday night as people crowded into Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach in Lincoln.

The temperature was low, in the mid 20s, and among those looking to avoid the chill for an hour or so was 53-year-old Dave McCray.

McCray is tall, with a bulky black beard that matches the color of his winter coat. A pack of cigarettes sticks out the top of his shirt pocket as he sits with his hands crossed on the table and his head down, waiting for the announcement that dinner is ready.

Dave McCray waits for a cup of coffee at Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach. McCray has been homeless for more than a decade. "I live in my van," he said. "That's one good thing."

Dave McCray waits for a cup of coffee at Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach. McCray has been homeless for more than a decade. "I live in my van," he said. "That's one good thing."

Soup kitchen regular

For the last seven years McCray has been a regular at the soup kitchen, a place he calls his second home.

“They take real good care of me,” he said. “Anything I need, all I got to do is ask.”

McCray grew up in Mississippi. After moving to Lincoln with his wife and three young sons in the 1990s he fell on hard times. Soon after the family split and his situation worsened.

“When we split I found Matt Talbot, been here every since,” he said. “Been homeless most all that time.”

McCray is just part of an increasing number of Lincoln residents who are without a home.

A survey by the Lincoln Homeless Coalition listed 846 homeless people living in the city  in 2011. Two years later that number has risen to 956, an increase of 13 percent.

Homelessness in Lincoln

As the economy continues to recover from the 2008 recession, this survey shows that homelessness in Lincoln is on the rise. And Inside that group of 956 Lincoln residents lies an even more drastic increase.

Juan Ramero has moved back and forth between Mexico and Lincoln over the last decade and has frequently taken advantage of Matt Talbot’s services during his time in Nebraska.

The survey breaks down the number of homeless citizens into three seperate categories. Some live in emergency shelter such as the city mission, others are in transitional housing provided by organizations like Matt Talbot and still others are completely unsheltered.

The largest number of homeless people live in transitional housing, programs that look to give the chronically homeless a smooth transition into a perminant residence. That group accounted for 53 percent of all homeless people. Next comes those living in emergency shelter, a group that accounts for 36 percent of Lincoln’s homeless.

The remaining 11 percent live completely unsheltered. It is this group that has seen the greatest increase. In 2011 there were 59 unsheltered homeless people in lincoln. By the time the survey was conducted this year that number had jumped nearly 75 percent with 103 Lincoln citizens living soley on the street, unsheltered.

Truth in the numbers

Jerry Owen, the assistant director of the People’s City Mission in Lincoln, said it’s very apparent homelessness is on the rise.

“We’re seeing (the increase),” he said. “It’s from a combination of things.”

Owen said the economy is the biggest culprit but also believes one of Lincoln’s best features, an unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, could also be part of the problem.

“People see Lincoln’s unemployment rate and think ‘wow, let’s move to Lincoln,’” he said. “They find minimum wage jobs that can’t support a family and end up at the shelter.”

The numbers from Lincoln’s men’s shelter match those of the survey. The nights of lodging given to people in need is up 37 percent from last year, according to Owen. He said with numbers up that much, sometimes all 101 beds at the men’s shelter are full and they have to resort to putting mattresses on the floor.

“We’ll find a spot for (them) somewhere,” he said.

CenterPointe Addiction and Mental Health Treatment, who also provides housing for the homeless in Lincoln, recorded a smaller increase.

Topher Hansen, the executive director of CenterPointe, said last year homeless citizens accounted for 51 percent of their patrons. This year that number jumped to 55 percent.

Sara Sunderman, an outreach specialist at Matt Talbot, agreed the economy is to blame for part of the increase. But she also said organizations that work with the homeless in Lincoln have taken greater care in the last year to accurately count the number of citizens living on the streets.

“We’ve had more agencies participate in that recently,” she said.

Getting into the shelter

 While many homeless people flood into the shelters and other relief organizations throughout the city when the weather gets rough, some stick it out.

The city mission screens people before they are given a spot to sleep and if they’re intoxicated, have any outstanding warrants or are a registered sex offender they’re not admitted.

“This is for obvious reasons, we have women and kids around,” said assistant director Owen.

These stipulations keep some from being given shelter. Still others chose not to go to the mission, usually because of mental illness.

Sara Sunderman said some homeless people with mental illness can’t bring themselves to sleep in such close quarters with so many other people.

“I have a population of people that just refuse to go (to the shelter),” she said. “They just know themselves well enough that they can’t do it.”

A night in the cold

Snow falls outside the Matt Talbot kitchen.

Troy Mercer has spent nights on the street in the dead of winter. He was once the president of painters local union 109 in Omaha, but after hurting his back on the job he slipped into unemployement and eventually into homelessness.

He now has an apartment in Lincoln, but was without a home for more than five years. He said he always found a way to stay warm when the weather turned against him.

“I was always able to find a good sleeping bag,” he said. “I put off a lot of body heat when I sleep.”

“If you can block the wind you’ve almost got it whipped,” he said.

Without a good sleeping bag or source of heat, some living on the street find other ways to combat the environment.

Frances Kaye is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln English professor who spends much of her time outside the classroom helping Lincoln’s homeless. She said some of her friends do anything they can to get out of the weather.

“There’s just not too many places to go,” she said. “They do all kinds of things.”

This can range from camping underneath a bridge to avoid the wind or turning yourself in to the police during the winter after letting arrest warrants for small infractions pile up during warmer months.

Kaye believes the problem of finding a warm place to sleep at night could be solved if more local organizations provided “housing first” programs that give rooms to homeless people with no stipulations.

“The answer to homelessness is housing,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

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