Homeless and food bank programs vie for piece of pandemic recovery pie

Supporters plead their cases before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee

By: - March 2, 2022 7:22 pm
homeless soup kitchen

Volunteers work at a soup kitchen for the homeless. (Getty Images)

Earlier this year, a Sarpy County team fanned out to get a “point in time” count of homeless people in Nebraska’s fastest-growing county.

Tanya Gifford told the Nebraska Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that in just the slice she saw, 13 families had landed at a hotel because of problems including evictions.

Three more families, she said, were living out of their car in the Gretna Walmart parking lot; seven others were at a local truck stop.

“Sarpy County, where everyone takes care of their own and money is no object, does not seem to be true anymore,” the director of Lift Up Sarpy County said with sarcasm.

$40 million

Gifford was among those testifying in support of a proposal that would earmark $40 million of Nebraska’s share of pandemic recovery funds to state homeless assistance programs.

Introduced by Omaha State Sen. John Cavanaugh, Legislative Bill 1052

Sen. John Cavanaugh
Sen. John Cavanaugh  (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

would provide grants to temporary housing and eviction diversion services as well as to programs that administer individual-level assistance.

The Appropriations Committee took no action on that or other bills aired Wednesday that are competing for roughly $1 billion in federal COVID-19 recovery funds. 

Among the others: 

Legislative Bill 1201, introduced by Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha, would appropriate $40 million for grants to nonprofits providing food assistance. Half the funding would go to the two Nebraska food banks and the other half would be awarded during a competitive process to innovative food supply-chain projects.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer
Sen. Wendy DeBoer 
(Courtesy of the  Unicameral Information Office)

Legislative Bill 1141, introduced by Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas, would direct $3 million to the Commission on Public Advocacy to help provide legal representation to indigent people hurt by the pandemic.

‘Stitch in time’

Cavanaugh, in his appeal, said the number of people living on the streets dipped due to “herculean efforts” of local agencies (buoyed with federal coronavirus financial aid) that connected homeless people with shelter and other assistance.

But, he said, much will be needed to stave off a rise in homelessness.

He said that as the “stitch in time saves nine” idiom attests, investing in support prior to someone becoming homeless benefits the labor market and reduces costs of health care and corrections.

State Sen. Tony Vargas (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

Tina Rockenbach of Community Action of Nebraska, which covers all  the state’s 93 counties, said her network hasn’t seen a drop in demand related to affordable housing. 

She said the bulk of requests for help come from households with at least one working adult.

“Nebraskans want to work, yet are still reeling from the effects of the pandemic,” Rockenbach said.

Access to justice for all

Mike Hornacek of Together Omaha said that since COVID hit, his nonprofit has hired nearly 50 people, purchased three buildings and distributed record amounts of financial assistance “to prevent a housing crisis.”

He said he’s concerned about the ability to sustain the pace and meet the need.

Scott Mertz of Legal Aid Nebraska said the Cavanaugh bill also could help hire more lawyers to provide services for the increase in landlord-tenant dispute cases. He said attorney representation for low-income residents holds off eviction 90% of the time. 

“It is imperative that there is funding available to ensure all Nebraskans all across the state have … the same access to justice as any landlord,” he said.

Lift Up Sarpy County’s Gifford said it is a misconception that homelessness is relegated to certain areas. She said her county lost residents after the 2019 floods because of a shortage of affordable relocation options.

She urged lawmakers to funnel assistance so that the “boots on the ground can help families still working but struggling.”


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.