Reaching out to tackle homelessness, mental illness

Community Alliance and Heartland Family Services lead homeless outreach in the Omaha metro, with help from other non-profits across the city. (Photo by Grant Gerlock, NET News)
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March 1, 2016 - 6:45am

Mental illness is a common variable among the homeless, and it can make homelessness harder to deal with. Nebraska non-profits team up to help people endure life on the street and eventually get to the root-cause of their homelessness.

Mental health and homelessness often go hand in hand, although it’s hard to quantify just how many homeless people have a mental illness. Estimates in Nebraska range from 16 percent to 30 percent, but people who work in the field say the real number is probably higher.

Gary Hankins, an outreach worker in Omaha, says in his experience mental illness is a familiar story.

“Clients we work with, it ranges from major depressive disorder to bipolar, a lot of PTSD,” Hankins said. “That makes it difficult for you to go to work. It makes it difficult for you to manage your bills. And if you can’t do those things you lose the place where you’re living so you fall back into homelessness.”

Reaching out

Gary Hankins and Gary Scarpino are outreach workers for Community Alliance, an Omaha non-profit that provides mental health services. They go out 3-5 times each week, and also make stops at the city’s homeless shelters.

On a recent afternoon, they loaded their car with bottled water and other supplies and I joined them as they headed for a camp under a street bridge near 78th and Cass Street.

“There’s a couple tents and camps that have been under there,” Gary Scarpino said. “We’ve got some clients (there) that we’ve been engaging with for quite some time.”

On the way, driving up 72nd Street through the middle of the city, Scarpino pointed out clients at bus stops and street corners. Working in homeless outreach means noticing details other drivers probably don’t.

“You watch people, the way they walk. You can sometimes tell just by the way they’re dressed and how much they’re carrying as to whether or not they may be homeless or not,” Scarpino said.

At 72nd and Dodge, a man with a heavy gray beard stood on the median holding a cardboard sign asking for money for food. Scarpino pulled up and rolled down his window. It was one of the clients he keeps track of.

“Hey Bob, how you doing?” Scarpino called out the window. “Do me a favor go over to Do Space and we’ll come and meet you. Is that alright?”

We met Bob Krueger across the street at a donut shop. Krueger has been living on the street for 13 years, but he recently told Scarpino and Hankins he’s ready to try an apartment. I asked Krueger how people react when he holds his sign in the middle of the street.

“Some of them are a little rude and they’re like, ‘Get a job,’” Krueger said. “They don’t know my situation so I can’t hold nothing against them, you know. They’re thinking that I can just go out and get any job like anybody can, but I can’t. My mentality. I snap and just go off and then I lose my job.”

Continuum of care

Service agencies are trying to address the housing and mental health needs of the homeless with a team effort. In 2012, the federal government mandated that each community create a homeless coalition called a “continuum of care.” Nebraska now has three. One in Lincoln, one for greater Nebraska, and one for the Omaha area called the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, or MACCH. MACCH includes Douglas and Sarpy counties in Nebraska along with Pottawattamie County, Iowa.

Charles Coley is the executive director of MACCH. He says the group's first objective is to find people a home, whatever the person's physical or mental condition.

“If we can place someone in housing, if we can make sure that they’re warm, that they’re having their food, their water, their nutrition needs met, that’s really the first piece of street outreach,” Coley said. “And then, of course, the supportive services and case management and mental health service provision can kind of flow from that.”

Part of each coalition’s job is to make a list of the people who need housing first. In the Omaha area, Coley says that list has around 300 names. Priority may go to veterans, people with disabilities, or those who have been homeless the longest.

David Clifton was at the top of that list. But he recently got his own apartment after living 25 years – half of his life – on the streets of Omaha. Year after year he battled drug abuse and depression.

“You know, I’m depressed, I’m not showering,” Clifton said. “I was down to the clothes on my back. That’s all I had, and I think I stole them.”

Omaha agencies get together once a week to talk about cases like Clifton’s and see who can offer a place to live and who can provide treatment for mental health or substance abuse.

Clifton said there was a time when he preferred living on the street, but now he finds comfort in having his own apartment.

“I love being safe,” Clifton said. “I like having clothes. I like quiet time away from the madness of the streets outside.”

Case managers have almost daily contact with Clifton to help him re-learn how to live independently. He’s going to classes to learn skills like stress management, how to cope with depression, and how to build relationships.

Meeting immediate needs

Part of what Gary Scarpino and Gary Hankins do on outreach is take care of people until they can get off the list. Later on our outreach we made our way to the camp they planned to visit underneath a bridge on Cass Street, which is a busy four-lane road in this part of Omaha.

We parked at a shopping center. The camp was maybe a hundred feet away, down a rocky embankment. Scarpino and Hankins grabbed some plastic sleeping mats, socks, and water - the tools of homeless outreach.

No one was home under the bridge, but the camp was there.

“A couple tents, makeshift, blankets, sleeping bags, and whatever food they can gather,” Scarpino said, describing the scene.

Even though it was an active camp, it almost looked abandoned. Trash was scattered around. Scarpino said he doesn’t judge clients based on the conditions they live in.

“This is how they have to survive,” Scarpino said. “We’re here to help and treat them as they are: individuals and humans. We have to show that respect. They’re doing what they can with what they’ve got.”

His goal is to give people what they need to survive, until they can get what they need to leave the street for good.



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