By: Mindy Paces

As the world continues to deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large and immediate issue looms as 2020 draws to a close. The moratorium on evictions will expire at the end of this year, and many individuals and families across the U.S., including here in the Omaha and Council Bluffs areas, will still be unable to pay rent or utilities. This will ultimately lead to countless people being evicted and becoming homeless and without additional assistance.

Heartland Family Service has seen a drastic increase in calls to our Homeless Prevention program. Before the pandemic, we received an average of 300 to 500 calls each month from individuals and families seeking rental and utility assistance. Since April of 2020, we receive between 1,000 and 1,300 calls each month. This is an increase of over 500%.

The need for assistance continues to far outweigh the resources we have available, not only at Heartland Family Service, but as a community. In the first six months of 2020, we surpassed the number of people that we served in 2019 alone through our Homeless Prevention program. As more and more people lose their financial safety nets and income and continue to face more financial and health hardships, we are also seeing affordable housing options deplete. These options have always been hard to come by, but now they are even more scarce.

All of the emergency shelters in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area have experienced COVID-19 outbreaks at least once throughout the last 10 months. When this happens, shelter-in-place orders are implemented, which means anyone who finds themselves needing shelter must go to extra lengths to find a shelter bed, which is hard to come by during “normal” times. Our Homeless Diversion team has been an asset in helping people problem solve during times when people are experiencing a housing crisis. Their ability to be able to creatively identify alternate options has been a key in relieving the stress of our emergency response system and shelter providers, which then reserves shelter beds for those who truly have no other options and no place to go.

Heartland Family Service has played a large role in helping prevent homelessness throughout the pandemic, with the help of several grants and generous funding. This has allowed us to be able to increase our capacity to serve those who are experiencing a housing crisis and/or homelessness. These additional resources have allowed us to add more Case Managers to our Homeless Prevention team, and we are also in the process of adding Case Managers to our Homeless Street Outreach team to be able to serve even more people as the need continues to rise in both Nebraska and Iowa. We also expanded our service area for our Homeless Prevention program to serve even more rural counties in Iowa. So everyone can.

However, even with our successes, we still have great areas of need. With the arrival of winter, we will be in need of winter gear and supplies for our Homeless Street Outreach team. We are also in need of financial assistance for our Support Services, Homeless Prevention, and Homeless Diversion teams to be able to quickly identify housing options for individuals and families. This financial assistance will help get individuals and families into housing as quickly as possible, or in some instances, prevent them from losing their homes. This helps protect those with compromised health conditions, while also reducing added stress on emergency response system of shelter providers that is already overwhelmed.

Heartland Family Service is also always looking for new landlords to partner with in all areas of Douglas and Sarpy counties in Nebraska and Pottawattamie County in Iowa. This will help us meet each family’s unique housing needs. Without our landlord partnerships, we could not continue the work we do.

It is vital Heartland Family Service continues to receive steadfast support to help those most at-risk in the communities we serve. Our agency offers some very innovative and unique services that fill critical gaps within our existing system, including our Homeless Diversion, Housing Navigation, Family Peer Support, and Family Flex Solutions programs. We also offer more traditional housing and homeless services, such as Homeless Prevention, Homeless Street Outreach, Rapid Rehousing, and Permanent Supportive Housing, among others.

If you are interested in supporting Heartland Family Service, or if you would like to learn more, please visit Soeveryonecan.org.

Without our services and programs working together toward a common goal, financial assistance, the help of our partners and emergency shelters, our community would be forced to imagine a world without Heartland Family Service. A world in which many individuals and families would either be homeless or at imminent risk of being homeless, especially as we all brace for the long winter ahead – and a pandemic that seemingly never ends.

Mindy Paces is the Vice President of Housing & Financial Stability of Heartland Family Service, a local human service nonprofit.