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Easing the burden: Project Homeless Connect Omaha

Project Homeless Connect Omaha 2016He carried close to himself, two bags, insisting he didn’t need help carrying them. The plastic Walmart sack held Snyder’s pretzels and other snack foods. In his other hand, the drawstring bag was packed tight, its contents he safely guarded.

Unzipping jacket pockets, he pulled out some papers. An unemployment check from Kansas. A two-week paystub from a job in North Dakota. Another paystub from two weeks at a meatpacking plant down in Kansas. He took out his wallet to show the spelling of his name listed on a North Dakota license.

“Mohamed Hassan,” it read. Forty-seven years old.

He sat, still guarded, with his navigator, Teressa Sirugo, a first-year physical therapy student at Creighton University. He sat among the other guests of the day, with their navigators, their personal guides throughout the day.

Under the bright lights of the Kiewit Fitness Center at Creighton, Hassan, like several hundred other homeless people from Omaha and Council Bluffs, gathered for the ninth annual Project Homeless Connect Omaha on April 1. They loaded into buses from area homeless shelters and came to Creighton for help. Many were stuck in a bad situation and hadn’t been homeless for long, just landed on the wrong foot.

“Where did you sleep last night?” Sirugo asked, filling out Hassan’s intake form.

“Siena/Francis House.”

Not too long ago, Hassan had gotten a call from his brother. “Come to Omaha,” he said. But when Hassan got to Nebraska, his brother was already gone to Kansas City. Hassan was stuck.

Without money for a hotel and without his brother’s place to stay, Hassan didn’t have anywhere to go. He turned to the Siena/Francis House, a familiar spot. He’d spent three months there in 2015.

“Do you feel happy today?” Sirugo asked, her pen at the ready to circle one of the images provided on a form to assess well-being, smiley face to sad one. Hassan touched the smiley face, a 5 on the scale. Then he hesitated.

“I’m not very happy to be homeless,” he said. Sirugo circled a 4 instead.

Guests at Project Homeless Connect OmahaOriginally from Somalia, Hassan came to the United States in 2006. He’s lived in California, Utah, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska. He’d spent nearly three of those years homeless on the streets.

He told Sirugo he’d start work next week, but later clarified he would start looking for work.

“I’m really happy for him,” she said. “He seems really excited about this job.”

Hassan didn’t seem too worried about getting the job. He’d be looking for a job in meatpacking, having had experience working at a Tyson plant before.

“You ready?” Sirugo asked as they both finished up lunch, the second meal of the day offered at Project Homeless Connect. Off they headed to the social services area. On any other Friday this spot would be filled with Creighton students playing pick-up basketball games or jogging around the track, but today it was home to professionals, Creighton students and staff, all volunteering their time and service to help the guests.

Frustrations grew as Hassan went to the tax services table. He soon learned his paystubs wouldn’t be enough to file taxes. He needed a W-2.

“Going to this is stressful enough, and the language [barrier] makes it more difficult,” Sirugo said.

Visibly frustrated, Hassan looked back to Sirugo for the next step, but she had left for a second, coming back from the tax table with a piece of paper.

“Free tax centers,” she said.

“They’ll help me for free?” Hassan asked.

Sirugo nodded. He just needed more time to gather the necessary paperwork, and Sirugo wasn’t going to allow him to go to a place where he needed to spend money. So she made sure he knew where he could go when he was ready.

The frustration left his face, and together they headed across the gym floor, to the other side of a partition which marked off medical services available for the day’s guests.

First up was a lice check. Students on hand from the College of Nursing took every guest into a screened-off area. For the first time, Hassan left his bags.

“We’ll watch them for you,” Sirugo promised as he headed in alone.

As a physical therapy student, Sirugo is asked to participate in a community outreach day each semester. In the fall, she volunteered in a gymnastics program for children with developmental disabilities. But this semester, she wanted to get directly involved with the population of Omaha.

Originally from a small town in Indiana, the large homeless population in Omaha surprised Sirugo. “It opened my eyes,” she said.

She’d heard of Project Homeless Connect from second-year physical therapy students, who had been navigators last year, and this year, were helping with physical therapy services.

Next year, she hopes to help with physical therapy, happily noting that students who volunteer as navigators are first picks for next year. With no classes on Fridays, physical therapy students are encouraged to spend their days serving others.

Exiting the curtain, Hassan again grabbed his bags. After a quick stop to check his vitals, he headed to the next station.

Kept tucked in his coat pocket were a pair of reading glasses, $11 from Walmart. But he wasn’t sure they were the right strength. Upon learning vision services were available he smiled—wide.

“These glasses are for free?” he asked. Again, Sirugo nodded. He’d gotten stronger prescription reading glasses, and the knowledge of a clinic coming to give free prescription glasses at the end of the month, right at Sienna/Francis House.

He walked, taller, over to his final station, haircuts. On site were students from Xenon Academy, a hairstyling school in Omaha.

“Why don’t you put on your glasses,” Sirugo suggested as Hassan waited for a haircut.

He slid them on and took out one of his forms. Earlier, he had to ask Sirugo for help to read.

But now, “I see the small letters. I see it better!” he exclaimed. “Thank you! Thank you!”

He smiled; keeping the glasses on long after the paper was safely tucked away in his jacket.

Soon it was his turn for a haircut. As he sat in the barber’s chair, Sirugo observed him with a sense of pride. At first, it was just a little off the top. Then his beard was cleaned up. A Xenon student handed him a mirror and then, he couldn’t let go. He kept looking at his reflection, asking for more off. Soon he’d gotten his whole beard shaved, minus his signature mustache. And he hadn’t stopped staring in the mirror since he started.

Back behind Sirugo on the table in the waiting area, laid his two bags.

Smiling at his reflection in the mirror, he didn’t look back.

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