GERING — Community Action Partnership of Western Nebraska (CAPWN) is still getting used to a new, expanded program, but as of July 1, the agency is assuming the functions of the homeless program previously headed up by Cirrus House.
While homelessness is especially visible in larger metropolitan areas, smaller rural communities must also deal with the problem.
"You don’t see homelessness the same in rural area as you would in big cities,” said Betsy Vidlak, CAPWN director of supportive health services. “It’s a rare day when you’d see a homeless person on the corner, but it happens occasionally.”
Although the availability of quality mental health services can be one of the primary factors driving homelessness in urban areas, the problem in rural communities is more often driven by economics.
“We tend to see families doubled up in homes that aren’t meant for nine or 10 people,” Vidlak said. “We also see a lot of ‘couch surfing’ where people hop from one couch to another because they don’t have adequate or safe housing.”
Sarah Ochoa, CAPWN director of community health services, said they tend to see families living in their cars or at campsites during the summer months.
Statistics from across the country reveal a shortage of affordable housing. Builders will build large, new construction for higher income levels, bur lower-income housing is harder to find.
Many municipalities are starting to address that problem of “workforce housing” through a variety of incentives to rehab substandard residential properties for reuse.
Vidlak said that because the area lacks a homeless shelter, CAPWN works with clients to provide emergency housing in motels.
“With our housing shortage, it takes time to find an affordable unit for them to move into,” she said. “Another problem is that many families we work with aren’t making a living wage. They’re working two or three jobs just to be able to afford an apartment.”
Ochoa said it’s a common misconception that a lot of the families aren’t working.
“They’re in minimum wage jobs without benefits. If someone in the family becomes ill, resources have to go toward that need.”
She added that homelessness doesn’t happen overnight. The family can only pay part of the rent because of another emergency. Soon, they’re in arrears and can eventually be evicted.
The CAPWN homeless assistance program has been in operation for years, but just recently the agency assumed the funding responsibilities previously handled by Cirrus House for about five years.
The funding is through the state’s Nebraska Homeless Assistance Program, which includes homeless prevention, emergency shelter services and rapid rehousing to get temporarily homeless families back into a residence as soon as possible.
Right now, CAPWN staff is trying to keep up with the number of people coming in every morning for emergency assistance.
“It’s been going well so far,” Ochoa said. “We’re fortunate to have people in place that are knowledgeable about what resources are available in the community.”
She added the goal isn’t just about getting people into permanent housing, but helping them become stable, self-sufficient members of the community.
“We’re excited to be able to offer this to families,” Vidlak said. “There’s a real need with people in emergencies, so we’re hoping to fill some of those needs.”