Photo of volunteers at event to help homeless people in Lincoln, NE.
A photo from the annual Project Connect Lincoln event in 2019 from the Lincoln Homeless Coalition website.

On a night in January 2019, volunteers walked the streets of Lincoln from dusk until dawn to identify people experiencing homelessness. 

The long night paid off when the numbers all came together — another year of decreased homelessness in Lincoln.

Since 2012, the rate of homelessness has decreased 54 percent, according to the Lincoln Homeless Coalition.

This progress is possible through the collaboration of over 45 agencies to get people off the streets and into housing. These organizations come together to form the Lincoln Homeless Coalition, with the mission to someday end homelessness.

“It takes the whole community and all of the different pieces being willing to work together,” said Jennie Danner, family shelter director at People’s City Mission in Lincoln.

Within the past several years, the community tackled homelessness more effectively by working together. Since organizations have combined their different resources, people facing homelessness are better served, according to the vice-chair of Lincoln Homeless Coalition Leah Droge.

“People are very collaborative and want to solve problems,” Droge said. “People look at things, not through a lens of ‘it’s just about what does my agency get out of this, but what are we able to do if we put our resources together?’”

The Homeless Coalition wants to heighten awareness and develop a community-wide commitment to the needs and issues surrounding individuals and families who are near or experiencing homelessness. People from different agencies make up 14 committees in areas from youth, public awareness, housing and more. 

“Not just one agency can do it alone,” former chair of Homeless Coalition Denise Packard said. “It takes a village to help the homeless, is the mentality I have. In the Homeless Coalition, each agency comes with their specialty. Lincoln is really fortunate with the collaborative spirit we have.”

Over the course of a year in Lincoln, it is estimated that 2,450 people will experience street or shelter homelessness, according to Droge.

With such a high need, outreach coordinator at Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach Sarah Sunderman thinks the teamwork between agencies is vital. She has strong connections with many representatives of agencies in the community since she is on the phone with them several times a week.

One agency alone can’t always provide the support a person experiencing homelessness needs, so Sunderman appreciates the collaboration made more accessible through the Homeless Coalition. Danner agrees that many agencies work together to meet the needs of clients.

“It’s about knowing our community and resources to get the guests to those places,” Danner said.

Another thing the Homeless Coalition emphasizes is the Housing First model. This means agencies want to place people experiencing homelessness in housing and then assist them with supportive services.

There is a lack of affordable housing in the city, so the Homeless Coalition is a liaison between the federal government and local agencies to create housing options for homeless individuals and families. The Homeless Coalition reports progress and statistics to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to work towards the mission of ending homelessness. This department also awarded $9,108,192 million in federal grants to Nebraska for homeless assistance programs in 2018.

One way this money is used is through permanent housing programs across the city.

As volunteers counted the homeless population in emergency shelters and on the streets in January 2019, the permanent housing programs kept 639 people off that list.

 The First Hope program at Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach is one provider of permanent supportive housing in Lincoln. As the housing case manager, Rosie Newell works closely with the homeless who seek housing.

 And she has heard their stories.

 “It’s that one thing,” Newell said. “House fire. Medical bills. One paycheck. It’s just that one thing that puts them over the edge, and everything starts to go downhill. I’m one thing away from being homeless.”

She shows empathy and patience in her job, remembering everyone has a story. Droge practices this philosophy in her work, as well.

 “It could be any of us on any given day,” Droge said. “There are so many driving factors for why someone might not have a home or have to leave a home. It is such a multi-faceted issue, and we don’t ever want to make assumptions about what that issue was for someone.”

Those who work with the homeless also notice the psychological impact that homelessness can have over time.

“You have some people that know how they got here, but don’t know how to get out,” Sunderman said. “They’ve been this way for so long. They don’t think they deserve anything else.”

 Regardless of the circumstances that made an individual or family homeless, the Homeless Coalition provides hope to the homeless population through housing opportunities. A specialized committee focuses on placing vulnerable people experiencing homelessness into the housing that’s right for them.

Every Thursday, Sunderman and Packard meet with the “coordinated entry” committee for the Homeless Coalition to discuss who should be the next recipient of housing. Homeless candidates on the list stretch beyond 500 people at times, according to Packard, who is also the coordinated entry manager.

The committee determines who will be offered housing next through the All Doors Lead Home Coordinated Entry system. This collaborative approach examines people experiencing homelessness and identifies cases of top priority in housing placement.

This is done through a conversational assessment between an agency representative and a person experiencing homelessness. Agencies that publicly conduct coordinated entry assessments include Matt Talbot’s Kitchen and Outreach, CEDARS Youth Opportunity Center, People’s City Mission and CenterPointe.

“It basically identifies who’s most likely to die on the street and those people are the ones that are going to be offered housing first,” Packard said.

People experiencing homelessness that come to one of these agencies for resources are not required to take the assessment in order to use its services. It is an optional assessment, but if it’s completed, then the individual will be added to the coordinated entry master list. Next, people are ranked according to their score and potentially offered housing.

Since housing resources are limited, this process ensures people with the highest vulnerability, service needs, and length of homelessness have top priority in housing placement. Packard thinks one reason Lincoln has been so successful in reducing homelessness is due to the housing first mentality. 

Once people experiencing homelessness are placed in housing through the All Doors Lead Home Coordinated Entry system, they have assistance getting the other services they need. With the large number of agencies working with the Homeless Coalition, there are plenty of resources available for people to get back on their feet.

The annual Project Connect event is another way the Homeless Coalition provides resources to individuals or families facing or at risk of homelessness. The one-day event held every fall for the last decade just set a record in attendance. Packard planned the September 2019 event and was very pleased with the turnout. There were over 600 guests that attended, who were served by more than 400 volunteers and 100 organizations.

Through this collaboration, the city comes together every year to address specific needs within the community. Droge thinks it’s a highly-important and impactful event to be a part of.

 “It always leaves my heart feeling so happy,” Droge said. “You get to see so many incredible people going all out and being kind, offering food, bringing smiles, showing someone a resource. It’s a great way to learn and see what already exists in the community.”

As Nebraska and every other state continue to work toward the goal of everyone having a home, the collaborative spirit of Lincoln agencies stands out to Danner. She thinks the way Lincoln comes together to face this issue is special.

“I think that Lincoln is really an amazing community,” she said. “They really want to help the homeless. Lincoln isn’t turning the other way or hiding or ignoring it. Lincoln is trying to tackle it.”

Celena is a senior at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln studying journalism, advertising and public relations. She enjoys traveling, trying new restaurants and spending time with friends and family. She is from Omaha, NE and is exploring different career paths in communications. Contact her at [email protected] or