A man named John walked unsteadily into a Creighton University gym on Friday, his gaze fixed on the floor, like he was trespassing and didn’t want to get caught.
John was dirty. Disheveled. He looked like he had been sleeping on the street, probably because he sometimes does.
A volunteer stopped him near the door of Creighton’s Kiewit Fitness Center. She did not stop him to bar him entry or ask for ID or do all the things we tend to do when confronted with a homeless person who has just trespassed into our lives.
On this Friday, the volunteer wanted to ask John a question: What can we help you with today?
John wasn’t sure how to answer. He raised his head and his eyes swept the gym: Hundreds of people, vast throngs of people just like him, were eating breakfast and getting their teeth checked and getting their blood pressure taken and signing up for housing. Hundreds of other people, in red T-shirts, were volunteering to help that first group of people do all these things and many more.
John saw all that, and he looked back at the volunteer.
“I, I probably need a haircut,” he said finally. “I think that’s what I need.”
Friday was the first time I had witnessed Omaha’s Project Homeless Connect, a Creighton-sponsored annual event now in its eighth year. Walking around the gym Friday, I felt like I had taken a pill that flushed the cynicism out of my system. I felt like somebody had shot me up with hope.
All around me, hundreds of people had taken the day off from their jobs and lives to help 675 other Omahans who walked through the door because they had no housing, no health care, no food. They got checked for lice and received needed immunizations. They got examined by doctors and were lined up with follow-up appointments for dentistry or a heart checkup or substance abuse treatment or all of the above.
Maybe most important, Project Homeless Connect knocks down many of the barriers — chief among them time and confusion — that often keep the homeless from receiving available housing.
The process of filling out forms, doing background checks and interviews and clearing up any outstanding criminal trouble usually takes a month, sometimes two, says Ed Shada, the Project Homeless Connect coordinator.
On Friday, that process was purposefully streamlined so that if a homeless person walked into the gym, he or she could be in housing in four or five days. If history is a guide, Shada says, one out of every eight homeless men and women who walked into the Creighton gym on Friday will have a roof over their heads by mid-April.
“These people do not want to be on the street,” Shada said. “The key is taking that first step to change your situation.”
He surveyed the room.
“You know, it isn’t all about money, about accumulating assets,” he said. “Dr. Thom understood that.”
“Dr. Thom” was a name I heard often on Friday, because Friday’s event was the first Project Homeless Connect Omaha that didn’t involve Thomas Weis.
For the first seven years of this event, Dr. Thom, a longtime physician’s assistant at the Charles Drew Health Center, was the living, breathing embodiment of what it was — what it is — about.
He helped set up the medical stations each year. He did examinations. He sat at a table and scheduled follow-up appointments for hundreds upon hundreds of homeless men and women who stood patiently in line waiting to talk to him. They waited so patiently because they knew Dr. Thom, and he knew them.
“I would be willing to bet that Thom took care of every person living on the street at some point during the past 20 years,” said Sue Carson Moore, the director of homeless and public housing health services for the Charles Drew Health Center, as she supervised the medical portion of the event and looked at the chair where Thom Weis used to sit.
Dr. Thom worked for years at Charles Drew. Then he moved to the VA Medical Center to work with homeless vets. He had Fridays off. Then he found out that the Siena Francis House needed a medical provider on Fridays.
And then he spent his day off working with the homeless, just like he spent pretty much every other day.
Thom Weis got a ridiculous number of awards during his career — so many plaques that when the 61-year-old died unexpectedly in February, his kids didn’t know what to do with all of them.
But after spending some time inside a Creighton gym on Friday, I’m pretty sure that this day meant more to him than any plaque. I’m pretty sure of that because Sue told me the question that’s been on so many homeless Omahans’ lips lately.
“Where is Dr. Thom?” they ask.
“He had a way of making you feel safe,” Sue Moore says. “That’s the only way I know how to explain it.”
I lost track of John after he checked in Friday, but I’m pretty sure he got that haircut, and maybe a few other services, too. I’m pretty sure the volunteer helped him from the time John walked in the door to the time he walked back out into the sunshine.
I’m pretty sure John felt safe. And I’m pretty sure that would have made Dr. Thom smile.