“They don't think it's there”: Homelessness not just an urban problem in Nebraska

Signs of homelessness under a Grand Island viaduct. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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December 30, 2016 - 6:45am

Homelessness is more than a big city problem. Mike Tobias reports on the challenges of finding and helping the hundreds of homeless people who are outside of Omaha and Lincoln.

Denisse Victoria is a nurse assistant originally from Cuba. Crystal Fisk is a fast food restaurant worker who used to live in Florida. Both are women in their mid-20s; both came to Nebraska a year or so ago; and both, without enough money to pay for housing, were homeless.

Denisse Victoria lived with her son in a homeless shelter for three months. (All photos by Mike Tobias, NET News).


Crystal Fisk slept in the back of her car for eight months.


Keli Forney of Central Nebraska Community Services.


Cheryl Holcomb of Central Nebraska Community Services.



NET's "Homeless in Nebraska" project

NET News "Homeless in Nebraska" project Signature Stories:

A look at homeless veterans in Nebraska (Dec. 2014 story)

Counting and caring for Nebraska's homeless population (Feb. 2015 story)

A trip to "The Jungle": the story of two homeless couples who live by the Missouri River (Feb. 2015 story)

Housing Nebraska's homeless and how one Omaha couple got out of a tent camp (July 2015 story)


Victoria and her four-year-old son lived in a shelter for three months after escaping what she says was an abusive relationship with her now ex-husband.

“Living in a shelter didn't mean that I have to go to sleep in the street,” Victoria said. “And I really thank you for that, but it’s not what you want for you and your son because nobody wants to leave in a shelter. I don't think it's dangerous. But I would say it’s not comfortable.”

Fisk lived with relatives for a while. But that arrangement didn’t work out. So for eight months she lived in her car, sleeping on folded-down back seats.

“It was hard trying to find a place to shower every day,” Fisk recalled. “It was (hard). Especially trying to stay warm. And the heat too, oh my goodness. Trying to sleep. It was horrible. It's definitely a struggle. I mean you definitely like to have to watch over your back and put yourself in like kind of like the safest surrounding. I never really wanted anybody to know that I was homeless so it wasn't something that I ever talked about.”

There’s something else Victoria and Fisk have in common. Their stories don’t take place in Nebraska’s two largest cities, places where you expect homelessness. They were homeless in Grand Island.

“In the rural areas, they don't think it's there. The community doesn't recognize that there's homeless people, said Keli Forney. She’s family outreach director for Central Nebraska Community Services. She’s been working with the homeless for almost two decades with CNCS. Before that she saw a different side of the issue as a county sheriff’s deputy.

“Since they don't have the overpasses people can be staying under and stuff like that they think somebody that’s staying down at the river in a tent is camping out,” Forney added. “They don't realize that they're actually living there. And so trying to get the community to come together to help homeless populations is very difficult in the smaller communities.”

So during her career, what is the smallest community Forney has seen with someone identified as homeless? “That would be Cedar Rapids. That's in Boone County,” she answered, referring to a central Nebraska village with less than 400 people.

“He was in fact homeless and he was not a transient and he was actually literally from that area,” Forney remembered. “But he had moved and he had come back thinking that he could you know, come back home, start anew, that kind of thing. And it wasn't working out. But nobody recognized him because of his situation. But we were able to get him into housing, and he was able to get a job, and so he did very well.”

Whether it’s Cedar Rapids or Grand Island, there are homeless people throughout Nebraska, although it’s difficult to say exactly how many.

Once a year, across the country, social services workers canvass places where homeless people are known to stay, and gather data from shelters, for a Point in Time count of the homeless population. Last year’s count for Nebraska outside of Lincoln and Omaha was a little more than 500. But this is just a snapshot of people who could be found on that day. For example, because Victoria was homeless for a short period of time, and Fisk was somewhat invisible, both would likely have not been included in this number.

“They aren't living in the boxes. They aren't you know, visible necessarily. But they are there,” said Cheryl Holcomb, executive director of Central Nebraska Community Services. “They're just your domestic violence victims. Your veterans. The veterans are becoming more prevalent in the rural areas.

“It doesn't look like your typical homeless in Chicago or the bigger cities, where you can drive down a certain street and they're all lined up or they're all in boxes,” Holcomb said. “That's not necessarily true in the more rural areas. You might have them where they're couch surfing. Or they might be living in a small camper.”

Forney added they’re also seeing more homeless families, sometimes big families. She believes the challenge of finding affordable housing in less populated areas is a cause.

“It's hard enough to find affordable housing for two or three people,” Forney said. “But for a large family, where you need a four, five bedroom house, the rent is astronomical.”

The same housing problem makes it hard to get homeless Nebraskans off the street, because whatever limited options are available then have to meet federal program requirements.

“What we're finding is because of the lack of housing, a landlord can charge whatever he wants,” Holcomb said. “So we are having a very, very difficult time finding affordable housing, and housing that meets housing quality standards.”

Forney said short-term solutions are limited in rural areas. “The smaller communities do not have shelters. They do not have hotels. They don't have any temporary housing,” she said.

Also in short supply outside of Omaha and Lincoln are agencies to identify and help the homeless, and care for problems that are often a part of homelessness, like mental health or addiction issues.

Holcomb said one thing they don’t see as much in rural areas are the chronically homeless, people who’ve experienced homelessness for a year or more or had four episodes of homelessness over three years. Many are like Crystal Fisk and Denisse Victoria. And in spite of the challenges they both got help, and Grand Island apartments to live in.

“It's nice. I’ve came a long way,” Fisk said. “Coming with no furniture, no nothing.”

“It's been a long way and it's been, it took like a lot of help from a lot of people, organizations, because I couldn't do it by myself,” Victoria said.

Now both are talking about furthering their educations, with hopes of better lives and never being homeless again. 

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2016" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published in February.



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