Omaha's Siena-Francis House is planning a major expansion of its homeless shelter in what city officials describe as a game changer for the city's homeless.

The proposal involves a $14 million to $17 million campus that would add housing and medical services to the shelter.

City officials said the project around the current shelter at 16th and Nicholas Streets would fill gaps in care for Omaha's homeless population.

"It's just fabulous," City Council woman Aimee Melton said.

Council President Ben Gray said it would address complaints he's heard about crowds of volatile and drunk or high homeless people from downtown to Lake Street in north Omaha.

"I don't think we can languish too long because the business community and my neighborhood associations — they're screaming," he said.

The project would be financed with city capital improvement funds, federal block grants for community development and private donations, Mayor Jean Stothert said.

Stothert plans to announce the project along with Mike Saklar, the executive director of the Siena-Francis House, on Thursday.

Saklar acknowledged to The World-Herald that he's trying to raise funds for the expansion but referred questions to Stothert and the City Planning Department.

An addition costing $14 million to $17 million would include job training and substance-abuse counseling

Stothert and the council members described the project as a way to treat homeless people in a more holistic way.

The goal is "not just to provide temporary shelter," Stothert said. "We want to get to the root of why people are homeless and try to help them deal with the social issues that are causing them to be in this situation, address those and help them transition into permanent housing."

That includes job training, mental health services and substance-abuse counseling, Stothert said.

Siena-Francis is one of a handful of homeless shelters in Omaha, and the only one that provides shelter to people who have been drinking or using drugs.

The new programs would expand the current shelter into a campus with separate buildings for different services, including family housing, a men's shelter, a day shelter, vocational education and medical services. The plan also includes community rooms, restrooms, showers, library services, storage and food distribution, Stothert said.

Melton said the project would help address the root causes of homelessness.

"With homeless people, it's not just a matter of 'Here's some money and an apartment, and you should be good,'" she said.

She said Saklar, Planning Director James Thele and David Thomas, the city's community development manager, envision the campus as a "secure, inviting, open space that was designed to encourage the homeless to remain on that campus."

Gray said the campus is important for Omaha and its homeless.

"Omaha doesn't have the problem that larger cities have," he said. "If we are aggressive, then we can address this. And I think this is a major step toward addressing it."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1084,

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