Homelessness in Lincoln

Story, video & graphic by: Bailey Hurley, NewsNetNebraska

When walking the streets of downtown Lincoln, you might notice a few things that stay the same day to day.

There’s that guy who sits in front of Walgreens. And that one who’s always out front at Starbucks. Then that guy who’s always sitting by the corner of Cane’s.

“Those people you see are what we call chronic homeless,” People’s City Mission CEO, Pastor Tom Barber says. “Which means they’re homeless all the time.”

Jim Flach roams up and down P Street most days and falls into that category Pastor Tom talked about.

“I’ve been homeless over 20 years now,” Flach says. “But on my good days I know it’s me that got me here on these sidewalks.”

After losing his job at a bank in the early 90’s, Flach says he fell into a deep depression and started drinking. About a year later he lost his wife, kids and house so he started couch surfing with old friends and new ones he met at the local bars.

“They got sick of babysitting me,” Flach explains. “I think they thought I was gonna put myself back together. And when they kicked me out too, I just stayed on the streets. Been here ever since.”

Chronic causes

‘Chronic homelessness’ can be caused by a list of things but Pastor Tom says it’s usually caused by what happened with Jim Flach, drug addiction and alcoholism. He also says there’s only a handful of people who fall under this category in Lincoln because most chronically homeless people end up in big cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York.

“Our shelter doesn’t even see these people usually. They stay on the streets to sleep, they have a family somewhere or our rules just don’t allow them on our property,” the CEO says. “You can’t bring booze, no drugs, you can’t fight and you absolutely cannot be a sex offender.”

However, they do have emergency housing for those who need a place to stay for the night before heading back out to the street the next day. And Pastor Tom isn’t lying when he says shelters don’t see the chronic homeless, unless it is for a night. According to the Point in Time Count, of the 1,771 homeless men in Lincoln, 1,138 are either unsheltered or only taking advantage of emergency housing.

And although chronic homelessness only covers 1 to 2 percent of the homeless population in Lincoln, or about 400 people, Pastor Tom says he doesn’t see that number dwindling anytime soon.

Stop giving

“People are too nice here,” the pastor explains. “You give a guy on the streets five dollars because you’re feeling bad and he goes and buys a couple beers and he shows up here tonight drunk. Thanks.”

He says the last thing to give a man on the street is money because although you hope it’s going into his pocket to be saved or spent on lunch, you just don’t know where it might end up. The CEO also says for those who do get in the ‘giving mood’ this holiday season to either just buy food to give out or donate to homeless shelters like People’s City Mission that have the resources to actually help those people in need.

“People should give because we want to make a difference,” Pastor Tom says. “I wouldn’t just give money willy nilly, I would give money because I think it’s really gonna make a difference.”

“I don’t get money very often,” Jim Flach says. “Back in the day I’d bring it to the C store for a couple of shooters or me and a guy would put our money to buy some Scotch. Not no more.”

Those chronically homeless need a lot of help getting back on their feet and fighting their addictions yet they’re also the least likely to be helped by the government, Pastor Tom says. He explains women and children receive the most sympathy from the general public, have the most programs offered to help get back on their feet, as well as more shelters offered to them.

“Poverty and homelessness look really different through middle class eyes than it does through those going through it,” the pastor says. “”What we see is not inaccurate, but it’s incomplete.”

Abused and on the streets

“Then there’s what we call crisis homelessness,” the pastor explains. “You’re homeless once, but you’re not homeless again.”

He says the leading cause of homelessness here in Lincoln is domestic violence. About 60 percent of those who walk through his doors requesting services are mothers and children. And Pastor Tom says the most concerning statistic of it all is 80% of those who are ‘crisis homeless’ are children.

“We’re kind of like a safety net,” Pastor Tom explains. “Now we’re not a domestic abuse shelter, but what we offer is capacity other places don’t have. If they weren’t here they’d be getting beat up by their husbands and fathers.”

Although People’s City Mission is not a full-fledged domestic abuse shelter, the CEO explains they still offer all services to the women and children who walk through their door. Whether it be services of their own like classes and daycare, as well as connecting them with programs in the community that help women in those situations get back on their feet.

Helping vs. hoping

“I think of the Mission as an expanded Red Cross. When you’re immediately homeless, what do you do?” Pastor Tom says. “The government might help you but it might be two to three months and we’re those guys that step in the gap and just keep you during that time and give you some services.”

Most cities’ homeless population is 1 percent or higher of their overall population. For Lincoln, 1 percent would be about 3,000 homeless. Pastor Tom says we’re not quite there yet, but he and a few people from other community shelters guess the numbers are in the 2,000 range. But he says the number is hard to nail down because not everyone who is homeless is in the streets or a shelter.

“I don’t hope our services will work,” the pastor says. “I help and serve to make it happen. It’s what we’re called to do. You can’t just say ‘Well I hope it all works out for that guy on the street.’ You would want the same if it was you.”

People’s City Mission serves a little less than half of the homeless population in Lincoln throughout the year and Pastor Tom says 15 percent walk out as a success story; Finding work, a new home, transportation, education and healing.

“I’ll take those numbers any day.”


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