Fall 2021, News
Housing Justice Advocate
By Jen Litton
Photo by Ron Coleman, C4 Photography
While Erin Feichtinger, Ph.D., is not a journalist, she “plays one on Twitter”—thanks to her undying passion for housing justice.
Her tweet threads detailing Douglas County Eviction Court give a bird’s eye view into the housing crisis, and she is often asked if she is a reporter.
She does this because she cares. And if she wasn’t dutifully tweeting court proceedings, who else in Omaha would?
Officially, Feichtinger is Director of Advocacy at Together Inc., a social service organization. When COVID-19 arrived in March 2020, Together was ready, providing 250 cars a day with food in their mobile Choice Food Pantry. “We didn’t shut down because we knew that people would need us now more than ever,” she says. “We run one of the largest all-choice food pantries in the state of Nebraska.” Last year, Together saw more than 156,000 visits to the pantry, and that number isn’t slowing down.
Together’s Crisis Engagement program received thousands of calls and served 2,997 households in 2020. The team helps people by being creative and flexible in solving problems.
The organization’s Rapid Rehousing program helps people experiencing chronic homelessness by providing them with extensive case management to help them transition out of homelessness and into housing stability. In 2020, they served 88 individuals and helped make 1,506 lifesaving utility payments.
“Homelessness and housing instability are just two of the most perplexing, devastating things. It just blows my mind that we have not figured out how to do this,” she says. “There’s some fairly obvious things that we have not agreed on together as a society, which is causing hugely negative repercussions, not just for individuals and our neighbors, but for our entire community. It [eviction court] happens four times a week in Douglas County. It’s crazy to me.”
Douglas County records about 3,500 evictions a year, but the newly-formed Douglas County Tenant Assistance Project, in which Feichtinger has played a role, is working to assist these families.
She works with case managers and attorneys and partners with organizations like Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH) and Legal Aid of Nebraska to problem-solve and streamline the process so people can apply for rental assistance. “I genuinely believe that most of my job is trying to make their lives easier, from writing policies to showing up to the Legislature and going to City Council meetings.”
Feichtinger says during 2020, she spent a lot of time with elected officials, securing rental, food and utility assistance funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. “I couldn’t be prouder to work every day with the absolute heroes who took on our neighbor’s collective pain and panic and helped them navigate through it all.”
She has championed human rights from the start. In high school, she was a counselor at Camp Munroe, a recreational therapy program from UNMC’s Munroe-Meyer Institute for kids and adults with physical and/or mental disabilities.
“Camp Munroe changed my life and probably set me on this path. I find that I always want to know why things are the way they are, and working with people with disabilities made me see the bigger systems at work that can often make life difficult for people,” she says.
Her advocacy spirit led her to run for elected office. Feichtinger serves as a member of the Metropolitan Community College Board of Governors, representing District 2.
She is eager to share about housing instability, an often invisible situation.
“You say that poor people are lazy and you want them to get jobs? How are you supposed to get ready for a job, go to a job interview if the bathroom ceiling is falling in on you? How are you supposed to feel confident, well-rested and doing the things that you need to do to be a ‘productive member of society’ if you’re up all night worried that your children are being eaten alive by bed bugs, that cockroaches are in your food? Since 1974 when we passed the McKinney-Vento Act to help homeless children, we know how devastating homelessness, housing instability and evictions can be on children.”
One of hardest days at eviction court for Feichtinger was watching twin brothers sit in eviction court, while their mother faced eviction. The courtroom was filled with other children facing the same potential fate.
“Every single one of us understands why it’s important to have a home and a place where you can feel safe. This is where we go to be fully human and to be ourselves.”
For now, she counts on the small wins to keep going. “Even if they aren’t much, they mean things can change for the better. You just need enough small wins to keep your eye on the big goal at the end.”