Helping More Than 25,000 People Stretch Their Food Budgets Every Week
BY MARY LEE HARVEY DIRCKS
Having a job, working hard and living within one’s means isn’t always enough. “The large majority of people who walk through our doors are working families,” says Mike Hornacek, executive director of Together Omaha, a local nonprofit that provides temporary assistance to people in crisis. “I guess you’d say we are the last line of defense against homelessness.”
Together Omaha prevented loss of residence for more than 2,200 families last year by providing emergency help with rent, utilities and deposits. Many of the families Together Omaha serves fall below $25,000 yearly income for a family of four. One financial set back can be devastating. “We ask ourselves what we can do as an organization to prevent those families from ending up at the shelter doorstep,” Hornacek says. One answer is to meet those immediate needs at that moment, but Together Omaha is now going a step further.
About three years ago, Together Omaha’s approach to assistance changed from a philosophy of just providing resources to that of looking more at causes and solutions. “For 36 years, we were a resource provider,” Hornacek says. “We did a lot of good providing a lot of things, but there was not a lot of forethought to what was the next step after that to help families become stable and then sustainable and ultimately self-sufficient.”
The agency now employs case managers to provide personal guidance to every person who looks to Together Omaha for any type of assistance. It could be a five-minute conversation that simply verifies an individual does not need any additional support, but just fell short on the food budget that month and needs access to the supplemental pantry. But oftentimes, the case manager discovers that a family qualifies for services but doesn’t know how to access them, or that an individual does not have a state-issued ID or certified birth certificate. Together helps to obtain these documents, which are required to secure housing, employment and benefits. “You can’t even open a bank account without an ID,” Hornacek says. Another small service with big impact is transportation to new employment. “We provide bus tickets through Metro (formerly known as Metro Area Transit-MAT) for a few weeks until they get their first pay check,” Hornacek says.
When personal disaster hits and loss of residence is eminent, families turn to Together Omaha for help with utilities, rent or security deposits. These clients sit down with case managers for in-depth assessments, Hornacek explains. “In that situation we don’t want to just pay the rent if that’s not going to solve anything.” Rent will simply be due again a month later. “We want to be sure they are in a position to be sustainable,” he adds.
The third level of assistance falls under the umbrella of the Rapid Rehousing Program, created a year ago to serve veterans and their families. It recently expanded to include non-veteran families as well, according to Hornacek. About 150 homeless veterans and families are completely set up with a place to live, furniture and housewares each year. “Number one, we get a roof over their heads, then we address what caused the homelessness,” Hornacek says. The list of possible scenarios is endless but often includes domestic violence, drugs, PTSD, loss of employment or a sick child. “There is more hand-holding with the rapid rehousing program because of the trauma that caused the homelessness,” Hornacek says. “We work with little steps and goals day-by-day to start to build confidence.”
Hornacek tells a story about when he first sat in on an assessment group and the leader asked participants what kinds of things they are good at. Most had no answer. “I was floored,” Hornacek says. “No matter what you’ve been through, you’re worthy. There are things you are good at. We just need to help you figure out what those are.” Case managers provide that extra guidance for 90 to 120 days of in-home case management; sometimes longer when needed.
Communication among other nonprofit organizations has also been key to providing more services at less cost, Hornacek says. He works closely with John Levy at Heart Ministry Center and Chelsea Salifou at Heartland Hope Mission. They refer clients back and forth for services not offered at all locations.
Metro will launch a direct bus route north and south on 24th street from Q Street to Ames Avenue March 1, 2015, according to Hornacek. “Currently it takes two and half hours switching busses four times,” he adds. “The three of us working together to provide services only works if people can get back and forth.” There will be bus stops near each entity.
“We’ve been supporting our community for nearly 40 years, very quietly and humbly,” Hornacek says. He hopes to continue to raise awareness and effectiveness with increased collaboration and impact.