Kelly: A mission to provide warmth from cold -
Published Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 12:30 am / Updated at 9:04 am
Kelly: A mission to provide warmth from cold

Inspecting an abandoned house, Dan Brewer of Habitat for Humanity was shocked at what he found — a homeless, shoeless, lifeless man, frozen to death.

Dan, 61, has seen a lot, and not much surprises him. He has discovered homeless people staying in abandoned houses, but this was the first time he had found someone dead.

“It was a pretty moving experience,” he said. “It really brought home the plight of homelessness in Omaha. It’s such a wealthy city with quite a few resources, but obviously there is still a problem out there.”

Dan Brewer

At 9 a.m. Monday, Habitat will conduct a memorial ceremony at the house, 2415 Binney St. A lay minister and a singer from nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church will lead neighbors, city officials, Habitat board members and others.

They will think of the man who died there, Norman Kuhl, and offer blessings for healing, safety and for the community’s work to improve its housing.

A contractor then will demolish the 1,262-square-foot frame house, built in 1915, which for many decades stood as a home. But not lately — it’s just a neighborhood eyesore.

Dan, Habitat’s director of construction, said that when he inspects abandoned houses, he often sees vestiges of when they were homes.

“You’d be amazed,” he said. “All their stuff is still there, but destroyed, like a bomb went off. I’ll find family photos lying around, or pictures still on the wall.”

It was a very cold Saturday morning last January, he said, when he came across the frozen, decomposing body. Police found identification in the man’s clothing, indicating that he was in his early 70s.

As with all of us, he had a life story. But what? There was no eulogy, no obituary.

His name does not show up in the records of the Siena-Francis House, meaning he never stayed at the shelter. Nor does his name appear in the shared database of Omaha area agencies who serve the homeless.

Police records indicate that he was arrested in 2008 for trespassing — an act not uncommon for people who seek out abandoned houses. No relatives came forward to claim his ashes.

Mike Saklar, Siena-Francis executive director, said the agency seldom knows of people living in abandoned buildings until police bring them to the shelter or until consequences are disastrous, such as a fire. (Two men died from fires this year in abandoned Omaha buildings.)

“Based on my experience working with the homeless,” Saklar said, “I expect that it is a regular, nightly occurrence that some men, women and even families stay in such places.”

As my colleague Roseann Moring reported last week, the City of Omaha lists 465 houses that it plans to raze. But even after increasing the budget for demolition, only 70 will be demolished in 2013.

Habitat for Humanity sponsors another program, called “Project Demolition!” Omaha philanthropists have donated toward a fund to tear down blighted houses.

Owners of blighted houses, meanwhile, are urged to donate them to Habitat and take a tax deduction. If houses are repairable, Habitat will renovate them. If not, the agency will have them demolished and build new homes on the property.

Habitat acquired the house on Binney Street through a nearly yearlong process. It went through foreclosure and a tax sale, and the agency purchased it for a few hundred dollars from the Land Reutilization Commission.

“This one kind of highlights our demolition program,” Dan said. “It really brings home the necessity to remove these derelict houses from the community. It sits next door to one of our homes from the ‘Blitz Build’ a few years ago.”

Habitat has demolished about 40 homes in the past year. The agency built or renovated 31 homes in 2012 and plans on 34 next year. In all, Habitat for Humanity has built 360 houses in Omaha.

New homeowners, who pay market price but receive no-interest loans, are required to invest 350 hours of “sweat equity” in the homes, helping to build them along with volunteers.

Habitat provides a support system that includes financial and home-maintenance classes, and checks in often in the first year to offer help. “All sorts of things,” Dan explained, “that will help them be successful home-owners.”

Amanda Brewer, Habitat’s executive director in Omaha, said there will be sadness Monday in remembering a homeless man who died, but happiness, too.

“This is a celebration for the neighborhood,” she said. “People are so tired of looking at this blighted house.”

On the last day of the year, before a bulldozer demolishes an eyesore that attracted a poor trespasser to his death, people will gather in the morning and pray for safety and healing: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In a year or so, a family home will rise on that lot, soon after to be filled with warmth — the very thing that a homeless man sought in the wrong place, an abandoned house.

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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