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Project Homeless Connect Omaha continues filling the gaps for area's homeless community

Project Homeless Connect Omaha at Creighton reached out to several hundred in the homeless community Friday, April 1.Gaps were on Ed Shada’s mind Friday morning at the Kiewit Fitness Center on the campus of Creighton University.

There are the societal gaps, sure — the ones Shada, founder and CEO of Project Homeless Connect Omaha has seen drive thousands in Omaha’s homeless community to this one-day event, now nine years in the running. But even more at the forefront of his mind on this day were the ways the project — which feeds and clothes homeless people, provides medical and dental care, legal and employment services — could help more people in greater ways and thereby provide an even more profound feeling that Omaha’s homeless are far from lost in the cracks.

“I’m just wondering: where are the holes? What’s missing? How can we improve the process?” said Shada, who is usually working as an emcee of sorts at center court in the Kiewit Fitness Center, coordinating volunteers and answering questions.

This year, to get a firsthand look at the experience of a Project Homeless Connect Omaha navigator — of which there are several hundred — Shada, a 1979 Creighton graduate, donned a navigator’s red shirt, stood in line and received a homeless guest whom he would help shepherd through the process, fulfilling what needs the guest might have.

“Our volunteers, our navigators, they make this absolutely brilliant,” Shada said. “What I’m doing, I’m just making sure we’re covering all the bases we could be and seeing that the process is as beneficial as it can be for the people we’re serving and the people who are doing the serving.”

In a perfect world, Shada said, there’d be no real need for something like Project Homeless Connect Omaha. But as long as the gaps exist, he aims for the project to fill them. One way is by expanding the program beyond Omaha, and Shada has demonstrated the model for people interested in their own events in Kansas City and Illinois.

Volunteers from Creighton's faculty, staff and student body, along with members of the greater Omaha community, served at the April 1, 2016 Project Homeless Connect Omaha.He also remains committed to making Omaha’s event as seamless and helpful as it can be.

“The question is how we take it to the next level,” he said.

At the moment, Darla Cooper of Omaha is pondering something similar. Though moving into a full-time job, Cooper is struggling with finding a place to lay her head each night.

Friday, she was in line at Project Homeless Connect Omaha, hoping to visit with the Omaha Housing Authority and a few other agencies which may be able to help her find permanent housing. She talked of her own struggle in the gaps and how something like Project Homeless Connect Omaha offers a beacon to people just like her.

“There’s a stigma associated with homeless people,” she said. “I even have it. I have a job, so I’m not supposed to be homeless, right? But it happens. And homelessness is such a stressful thing because people today aren’t always that helpful when it comes to homelessness. So to have something here, a steppingstone, a way forward, it is such a great act of kindness. For someone like me, who just fell into a rough spot, or for someone who has been homeless for years, this is a place where you can get some help.”

Mattie Potthoff, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences from Carroll, Iowa, was serving as a navigator for the first time at Project Homeless Connect Omaha, and said the experience she shared with a woman named Jessica had a profound effect on her.

“More than anything, I think it’s listening to Jessica’s stories,” she said. “It was really neat to sit down and chat with her. She said nobody had really ever done that before. It felt good for me to get to know her and be able to put a face to homelessness. I don’t think there’s enough of that.”

It’s a gap Ed Shada never has to worry about.

“Our volunteers are always having that experience of having their eyes opened to homelessness,” he said. “Even if you’ve done this a couple of times, it’s always a reminder. People are always learning a new appreciation. We hope everyone we serve gets what they need, but we also hope our volunteers leave here with new ideas on how they can continue to be of service.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.