A child sits up against a brick wall outside with their head tucked into their arms which are wrapped around his legs. Next to them is a backpack.
Courtesy image from Melissa Ripley, current chair of the Lincoln Homeless Coalition and with Lincoln Police Department

Since the Great Recession of 2012, the number of homeless people in Lincoln has gone down rapidly while funding supporting Lincoln’s homeless population has gone up.

Advocates say it’s because of Lincoln’s Homeless Coalition, a group of social service agencies that work together and a program called Coordinated Entry that helps track people in need and arrange limited resources to help those most in need first.

The number of homeless people in Lincoln peaked in 2012, five years after point-in-time counts began. A total of 981 people were counted homeless, including 671 adults and 310 youths. There were 133 individuals, 28 families and 78 veterans considered chronically homeless – people who have drug or alcohol issues or severe mental health issues and need more than the Rapid Rehousing program, which focuses on short-term rental assistance.

By 2018, the homeless population dropped to an estimated 451 (344 adults, 107 youths) –  a 54.1% decrease from 2012. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires point-in-time counts be done annually in cities nationwide to estimate how many people experience homelessness – whether sheltered or not. 

In Lincoln, those counts are recorded through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center on Children, Families and the Law. 

Denise Packard, a Lincoln Homeless Coalition chair and the coordinated entry manager said the program works to organize housing programs and provide them to people who need them most at that time. She said they assess each individual and provide them a number, which tells the coalition what kind of assistance is needed.

Homelessness Point in Time Count 2007 2023 - Lincoln Homeless Coalition and coordinated entry helping combat homelessness in Lincoln
This data comes from the Center on Children Families and the Law. This graph and table were made by Rebecca Hummel for the Nebraska News Service. Data showing the total number of homeless people, including adults and youths, according to UNL’s Center on Children, Families and the Law. Graphic by Rebecca Hummel/NNS

“Coordinated Entry is actually working with the people who experience homelessness, and the agencies that are in contact with those folks,” Packard said. 

Melissa Ripley, current chair of the Lincoln Homeless Coalition and a police officer with the Lincoln Police Department said coordinated entry considers domestic violence, mental health, disabilities and whether someone has children. It then gives people a score determining their priority of needs. 

The Lincoln Homeless Coalition is a membership organization now involving 75 organizations. The coalition started as an attempt to get shelters and housing agencies together, according to Lee Heflebower, a coalition member and domestic violence and economic justice specialist at the Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence.

The coalition formed in the 1990s after the federal government required cities to seek collaborative efforts in order to get funding, she said. Since the coalition was started in the ‘90s, the addition of coordinated entry across the partnerships was much easier than in other cities the size of Lincoln, Heflebower said. 

“If I was homeless, I would go to this agency and I’d fill out an application,” she said “I’d be all over town, every agency that had a housing program, I’d put my name out there because I need housing.”

This was inconvenient for shelters and for homeless people finding housing because two places might have made space for the person at the same time without knowing, Heflebower said. There was not much communication about the one person and their needs, either. 

She said it was a long wait for the person and usually did not give the person what they needed. 

Coordinated entry makes sure everyone is on one list and connects them with the best shelter situation for them, she said. 

“If I’m experiencing homelessness, I go to one agency,” Heflebower said. “There’s several agencies in town that can do this assessment, but I go to whichever one I’m comfortable with and I do an assessment and then my name gets put on coordinated entry list.”

Whichever agency does the assessment has a representative join a weekly Zoom hosted by UNL’s Center on Children, Families and the Law and answer questions about the person’s situation, said Christina Lloyd, a coalition member who oversees homeless youth programs at CEDARS.

CEDARS deals with individuals who are 25 years old or younger because of the federal definition of youth, Lloyd said. Agencies are required to do additional follow-ups with people 25 and younger.

“Young people are supposed to check in weekly to remain on the list,” Lloyd said. “After two weeks and no contact, they get snoozed just because it’s a live list also. So housing providers, if you have an opening, you need to make sure you’re able to fill that opening in a timely manner.”

Heflebower said federal definitions make finding homeless people difficult. There are multiple people not being considered in the point-in-time counts, she said. 

“Specifically people who are doubled up with family or friends but they still very much don’t have a house of their own, they just don’t happen to fit the federal definition that would be what we’re counting,” Heflebower said. 

Ripley said it’s rare to see a family living on the street and therefore people who may be couch surfing may not find housing because they are not federally considered homeless. Point-in-time counts break down the demographics of who is in a shelter or on the streets. 

Ripley said that while homelessness numbers have gone down in Lincoln, the chronically homeless still don’t have somewhere to go or stay. People’s City Mission helps many people experiencing homelessness for a limited time, she added, but the chronically homeless cannot usually stay there because the Mission is a private entity and determines how long people can stay for or if they can stay. 

“The city is going to start looking at building a low-barrier shelter where we will take the people that the Mission won’t take,” Ripley said.

The downside to the low-barrier shelter is that it is just now being looked into and will take about 18 months to build, Ripley said. There is a site picked out and funding is coming from the federal government to make sure everything gets done. 

The low-barrier shelter would help people without government identification or people with legal issues, said Leah Droge, past chair of the coalition and executive director at Friendship Home. 

“Those are fairly, what I say, controversial populations overall, but as a community, if we believe that homelessness is an issue, we have to look at how homelessness impacts the entire community, including that population,” Droge said. “So it’s really looking at how can we provide safe shelter for all of our community members.”

When looking at homelessness numbers, she said the coalition is increasingly aware of who is left out and what their needs are. 

Another thing that becomes apparent when looking at point-in-time numbers is the effect of the pandemic, she said. People received money federally if they fell behind on rent, but now it is dwindling.

“I don’t know if we’ve seen that full impact of that yet, but I think we will,” Droge said. “I can tell you that at Friendship Home, we had seen kind of a roller coaster as far as families reaching out or individuals reaching out for shelter during COVID. But now that we’re somewhat on the other side of it – I should knock on wood when I say that – that we are seeing more people request shelter again.”

COVID gave people a bit of grace with money and time, Ripley said. Looking at point-in-time numbers once again, the number of people considered homeless is going up, she added. 

According to the data, there has been a 30.6% increase in those experiencing homelessness from 2021 to 2022. However, compared to 2016, there is still a 39% decrease in those experiencing homelessness.

“There was a lot of money to continue paying rent and mortgages to keep people from becoming homeless and that money is gone now,” Ripley said. “So now people are starting to have to pay their rent again. And so we’ll start seeing, the uptick will just happen because the funding is gone for that.”

Lincoln gets attention at national conferences for its collaboration and ability to reduce homeless numbers, Packard said.

“The coalition is really unique to Lincoln and to the United States. Not everyone has that,” she said. “And I think that the coalition is why Coordinated Entry works because we’re very unique and national trainings that we’ve gone to, not everyone collaborates. It’s more of a ‘I’m going to do this on my own like an agency.’ But here it’s really, how can we work together to better the lives of the people we’re serving and be more collaborative?”