Nebraska saw an increase in individuals experiencing homelessness in 2020.
The annual point in time count, published in March, showed that 2,404 Nebraskans experienced homelessness at the time of the 2020 count, a 1.6% increase from 2019.
Each year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development coordinates a count, known as the point in time count, of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S.
The report also showed that among those counted, 446 reported chronic substance abuse, a 10.26% decrease from the previous year.
Michelle Bobier, chief programs officer at the Siena Francis House, an agency in Omaha that provides emergency shelter, food and clothing to individuals experiencing homelessness, noted that the decrease in chronic substance abuse among people experiencing homelessness is self-reported.
“Therefore, the occurrence is underreported,” Bobier said. “The National Coalition for the Homeless has found that 38% of homeless people are alcohol dependent, and 26% are dependent on other harmful chemicals.”
During COVID-19, Bobier found that a number of people were hesitant to enter a residential addiction program.
People seeking treatment did not qualify for early rollouts of vaccines, and the homeless population was not prioritized like nursing homes, assisted living centers and other shared living environments, Bobier said.
“This is certainly a public health concern, as the incidence of substance abuse is up,” she said. “According to the CDC, 13% of individuals report starting or increasing substance use, related to coping with pandemic stressors.”
As the community gradually becomes vaccinated, the Siena Francis House anticipates an “overwhelming need and request for residential addiction treatment services,” Bobier said.
Overall, Bobier said, the agency didn’t see an increase in need for services in 2020. The Siena Francis House served 2,900 individuals in 2020, a number consistent with 2019.
Candace Gregory, the CEO of the Open Door Mission, which operates with the goal of breaking the cycle of homelessness and poverty, said she has seen an increase in food insecurity.
“I think the impacts of COVID continue to perpetuate,” Gregory said.
She pointed to a variety of factors. An increase in gas and grocery prices and jobs in the service industry that just haven’t bounced back yet.
“All of those things that impact everybody, impact people who are experiencing homelessness and poverty tenfold,” Gregory said.
Gregory said there have been some positive change during the pandemic. The Open Door Mission saw a need for mental health assistance and hired its first art therapist. The agency also has a new summer children’s program in the works.
“I believe our protocols and our best practices have changed forever, and that’s OK,” Gregory said. “I think we’ve learned a lot. I think the things we’ve learned from COVID will help us to have safer flu seasons in the future.”
Gregory said it’s disappointing to see an increase in the point in time count, but she continues to look to the future.
“We just have to continue to remember that we change lives one person at a time, and whether it’s an increase or a decrease we have to continue to provide opportunities that empower people to be able to break that cycle of homelessness and poverty,” she said.