Lisa Utterback, with the Omaha Public Schools, hands blankets to students on Friday morning. Children evacuated from the Yale Park Apartments at 34th and Lake Streets were taken back to the area Friday to catch school buses.

Toba Cohen-Dunning was moved to tears in a Target.

Over the weekend, she saw an Omaha Public Schools teacher buying up nearly all the backpacks in the store for the students and families from the Yale Park Apartments who found themselves suddenly homeless after city housing inspectors Thursday declared the apartment complex unsafe.

The teacher told Cohen-Dunning, the executive director at the Omaha Public Schools Foundation, that she and her husband knew bedbugs were a problem and wanted to make sure as many kids as possible got new, clean bags.

“She’s a teacher, not a banker,” Cohen-Dunning said.

But it’s indicative of how people across Omaha have stepped up in a big way for the residents of Yale Park, donating cash, bedding, diapers and food to help the refugee families who are now scrambling to find housing.

The OPS Foundation hit its $40,000 fundraising goal in 48 hours this weekend and had raised more than $48,000 by Monday afternoon. Churches and businesses are signing up to sponsor families.

And members of Omaha’s Karen community — many of the Yale Park tenants are Karen, an ethnic minority from Myanmar — are cooking up vats of rice and vegetables and volunteering to serve as interpreters for residents who don’t speak English and the social service agencies trying to help.

An estimated 500 people were displaced after the city swept in Thursday morning to conduct a surprise inspection of the Yale Park Apartments at 34th Avenue and Lake Street.

By the end of the day, inspectors evacuated the complex’s 100 units, spread across 13 buildings, because of electrical problems, gas leaks, and mice and bedbugs. More than 1,000 code violations were discovered, though the property’s owner-landlord contends that it’s an overreaction.

The residents, including roughly 175 OPS students, are refugees from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, who fled the country’s civil war violence. Several interviewed by The World-Herald said they had lived at the complex for several years since arriving from refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia.

Social service agencies like Heartland Family Service have been working around the clock to find new homes for the affected families.

An estimated 275 people were still staying at temporary shelters at city community centers as of Monday morning, according to Heartland Family Service Vice President Joanie Poore. Others are staying with friends and family.

Monday morning at the Adams Park Community Center, residents had slept on cots in the gym and were lining up to meet with staff from Heartland Family Service, the Omaha Housing Authority and other agencies working to connect them with available housing.

Volunteers from the Salvation Army served rice, a stew, bok choy (a Chinese cabbage), broccoli, long beans and zucchini. Donated fruit, granola bars, chips and other snacks were piled high on tables. The first night at the shelters, pizzas from Little Caesar’s were delivered — not exactly typical dining for many of the residents. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said organizers since have tried to serve “culturally sensitive” food.

Behind the community center, residents’ clothes and bedding were being treated in portable bedbug heaters designed to kill the pests, then sealed in rubber totes.

“We don’t want them to take bedbugs with them when they take their belongings to their new place,” said Abby Showers, the permanent supportive housing director for Heartland Family Service.

Sha Htoo, 23, is a member of the Karen community and a student at Metropolitan Community College. He, along with family, friends and other college students from Metro and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, have been volunteering at the Adams Park shelter, serving meals, watching kids and acting as interpreters.

“I feel like this is my community,” he said. “The Karen people, they need our help. They’re going through a rough time now.”

Poore said that as of Monday, 75 of the 87 families currently residing at the city shelters were in the process of finding a new apartment or home. If others haven’t found permanent shelter by the end of this week, they could move into hotel rooms.

“Not everything is confirmed, but we’re starting to take people to sign leases, go get keys and then start moving in,” she said.

Bank representatives also were visiting the shelters to meet with residents who want to buy a home.

But the process takes time, Poore said. Credit checks have to be run, rental applications have to be processed and staff have to inspect rentals to make sure they are move-in ready.

“As much as possible we don’t want people to go into similar units that are in the (same condition as Yale Park),” she said.

Then there’s the affordability factor.

With support from donors, Heartland Family Service will pay application fees, security deposits and the first month’s rent. But once that help is exhausted, families will be on their own to come up with rent. Officials said Yale Park residents were paying out of pocket, with no federal resettlement funds or Section 8 subsidies.

Housing specialists are looking for rentals that cost $650 per month or less. The rent at Yale Park was under $600, one of the main selling points for the refugee families. Many work in meatpacking plants.

Showers said Heartland staffers have drafted letters asking employers to understand why many of the residents are missing shifts.

“They’re in crisis,” she said. “They have no housing, they’re trying to figure it out, so they’re going to miss a few days of work.”

Mark Theisen, general counsel of the Greater Omaha Packing Co., said about eight Yale Park residents work at the South Omaha plant. The company is excusing absences for the hourly workers as they scramble to find new homes, he said.

Derek Burleson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, said that he didn’t know how many employees were affected but that the majority of workers at Omaha and Council Bluffs facilities reported to work Monday. The accounts of the conditions at the apartments are “heartbreaking,” he said.

“In addition to interpreters we employ who can help our team members connect with local social services, we have a team-member funded program called Helping Hands, which provides support, relief, and encouragement to team members in times of need,” he said in a statement.

Residents have expressed a desire to stay together, if possible, or be placed in parts of the city — like pockets in Benson or off Saddle Creek Road — where other families from Myanmar live. At Yale Park, there was safety in numbers: residents spoke the same languages, carpooled to work and traded child care.

“We certainly know it’s not going to be possible to replicate what they had, so many people living in close proximity,” Poore said.

In the meantime, donations of bedding, clothes, furniture and other items have been pouring in. Donations can be dropped off at the Adams Park center, at 3230 John A Creighton Blvd. (in Adams Park, near 30th Street and Bedford Avenue), or the Columbus Park Community Center, 1515 S. 24th St. Heartland Family Service is also accepting donations at 1941 S. 42nd St., Suite 375.

Restoring Dignity, a volunteer group that helps refugees, is looking for churches, workplaces and other groups to sponsor Yale Park families. Nearly 40 groups have signed up so far. Visit rdomaha.com for more details.

The OPS foundation is using funds raised to buy and distribute gift cards to families. It continues to accept donations.

“We’re trying to keep the campaign going, because we know these families are going to need funds when they’re relocated,” Cohen-Dunning said.

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Reporter - Education

Erin is an enterprise reporter for the World-Herald. Previously, Erin covered education. Follow her on Twitter @eduff88. Phone: 402-444-1210.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Recommended for you

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.