Iris Divelbess will soon bring her new baby boy “home.”
To a dorm room shared with three other women. At a homeless shelter's drug treatment building where she's been living since April.
The Stephen Center would like to offer the new mother — and others at its cramped emergency shelter and neighboring residential drug treatment building — a more permanent place to live.
And it can — in two years, when the first of a two-part construction blitz replaces the 68-bed emergency shelter and adds what will be 62 apartments to its campus at 27th and Q Streets. Fundraising for the $12 million project is under way.
It marks the latest in a series of buildings planned or going up at homeless shelters across Omaha to offer people independence and proximity to the support they often need after leaving a shelter.
The projects are called “permanent supportive housing,” HUD-speak for private, rentable apartments in arm's reach of a safety net: meals, social workers, 12-step meetings and a community of people with shared experiences.
The apartment buildings are part of a shift in philosophy about serving the homeless. The U.S. government is pushing communities to get the homeless off the street, and off homeless rolls, for good with permanent homes rather than larger emergency shelters.
Work at the Stephen Center marks the latest in a series of buildings planned or going up at homeless shelters across Omaha to offer people independence and proximity to the support they often need after leaving a shelter.
What's new at the Stephen Center
» New 68-bed emergency shelter for men and women with larger dining space to serve more people.
» 62 apartments; 40 for single adults and 22 for couples or families.
Cost: $12 million, including $10 million for construction and $2 million for start-up costs and operating revenue.
Funding sources: A mix of public and mostly private dollars with nearly half the total cost coming from the sale of low-income housing tax credits. Tax credits are sold on the open market to investors who, in return, get money off the federal income tax they owe. State of Nebraska and City of Omaha funds, a bank loan and about $2.1 million in private fundraising make up the rest.
How it will be done
Phase 1: Build an L-shaped building that would hold the emergency shelter, dining room, meeting and office space and 48 apartments.
Phase 2: Tear down existing shelter at 2723 Q St. and replace with two-story apartment building with 14 family apartments.
Homelessness in Omaha and Council Bluffs
A formal census of the homeless in Omaha and Council Bluffs is taken twice a year.
According to the most recent count in January:
» 1,530 people homeless; 204 were “chronically” homeless, or disabled and homeless for more than a year; 143 were veterans. This was down slightly from 2011 overall. But the percentage of homeless families rose about 7 percent.
» 2,299 people were housed in shelters, transitional homes and permanent supportive housing units, which are not part of the official homeless count.
» Open Door Mission is seeing an increase in domestic violence victims.
» Siena Francis House posted an all-time high of 409 men on May 29, and its overall numbers are up 4.3 percent this year compared with the first half of 2011.
» Stephen Center has 72 homeless, including 20 children, now. This is down from the usual 120 in the winter.
Sources: Stephen Center, Metropolitan Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless, Open Door Mission, Siena Francis House
Other shelter apartment projects
Siena Francis House, 1702 Nicholas St.
Two two-story buildings with 24 efficiency-style apartments apiece are going up on 18th Street, north of Nicholas Street. Each apartment will have its own bathroom and kitchenette. Rent is $250, and the shelter will help subsidize units for the very poor. Units are designed for single chronically homeless adults who are disabled. They are scheduled to open in September. The shelter also plans a separate services building to house office and meeting space for various agencies that serve the homeless. Total cost: $7.2 million, including property donated by the City of Omaha.
Open Door Mission, 2828 N. 23rd St. East
» The Mission last year opened a three-story, 41-unit building with two- and three-bedroom apartments. Units include: kitchen appliances, washer and dryer, a phone line, private bathroom(s) and large storage closets. Rent is $450 and $550, depending on unit size. The building includes a computer lab, a classroom, a small workout room with equipment and an enclosed playground. Units aren't just for families; singles can double- or triple-up to share costs. All units are full and there is a wait list.
» The Mission, which recently redid its Lydia House women's shelter, is opening a 96-unit men's addition. This three-story building with efficiency-style apartments is set to open in September. Two thirds of the units (64) are for permanent supportive housing with programs focusing on veterans, the mentally ill and chronically homeless people. This is part of a $30 million campuswide project to improve facilities. The Mission has $1.2 million left to raise.
This has expanded the role of non-shelter groups like Heartland Family Service, which sends caseworkers under bridges and to other homeless hangouts to persuade them to try apartment life. Caseworkers then help these formerly homeless adults manage the big life change once they move indoors.
The largest landlord for the poor in Omaha is the federal government, with its over 6,000 subsidized homes managed by the Omaha Housing Authority. But rules about criminal records and prior housing infractions, plus the typically long waiting lists, push out a population that needs the help.
Enter the shelters and nonprofits that are like OHA, on a smaller scale, with case management and more flexibility.
Unlike transitional housing, which has a two-year time limit, these apartments can be as permanent as tenants and shelters desire. And for some people, these on-campus efficiency-style apartments will be as much independence as they can muster after years of knowing only life on the street.
Advocates also hope it means an end to hard years of shelter and street life, which can lead to early death.
“We always struggle with finding safe, affordable housing,” said Charity Watts, program development director for the Open Door Mission. “The key words are ‘safe' and ‘affordable.' We have clients who get clean and sober and move right back in to the place where they came from.”
Mike Saklar, director of Siena Francis House, said he could rattle off names of formerly homeless people who were housed off-campus only to wind up homeless again because they were “inadequately equipped in life to live independently.”
The upside for shelters is two-fold: they can better serve a tenuous population that often struggles after moving from a shelter into a far-away home. And the shelters can better afford it in apartments designed to be self-supporting. Efficiency units going up at Siena Francis House will rent for $250 a month. Three-bedroom, two-bathroom family-style apartments at the Open Door Mission rent for $550.
This is a more sustainable prospect, said Stephen Center Executive Director Del Bomberger, than serving as landlord to a dozen scattered houses that require more maintenance and provide less steady income.
The Stephen Center is selling its seven houses and will use the money to help finance a project that will transform a city block. Gone will be the century-old, two-story former flophouse that became a shelter in 1984. Gone will be dorm rooms with narrow iron bunk beds pushed close together. Gone will be the tiny kitchen that feeds hundreds a day.
In its place will be an L-shaped building that includes more space for emergency shelter. In its place initially will be 48 apartments: 40 efficiency-style for single adults; and eight two- and three-bedroom units for families.
Groundbreaking is scheduled for next spring, and Bomberger expects the first phase to take a year. Once the new emergency shelter is built, the old one will come down and another wing of 14 apartments will go up.
“This is the best of both worlds,” Bomberger said. “You still have your shelter. You have the next step for people.”
For people like Divelbess.
The 38-year-old landed at Stephen Center's HERO drug and alcohol treatment program in April.
“I was homeless, pregnant and really, really depressed,” said Divelbess, who has struggled with addictions and homelessness for years. Her problems meant the State of Nebraska had to step in to care for her four older children.
Like a number of homeless people, Divelbess has recent misdemeanor convictions and can't get into government-subsidized housing like Section 8. Divelbess said Heartland Family Service has offered its help. Meanwhile, Stephen Center said she could stay after she has her baby until she lines up something else.
If the shelter had apartments ready, Divelbess would be a good candidate, said Bomberger.
“She is exactly the kind of person who (would) do well,” he said. “She (would) have access to all the additional support mechanisms that would ensure her long-term success. ... She (would) benefit even more from becoming a mentor to someone who follows in her shoes.”
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