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Project Homeless Connect Omaha still connecting, still serving after 10 years

Project Homeless Connect 2017 marked its 10th anniversary at the Kiewit Fitness Center on the Creighton campus.Three years ago, Matt Schinke remembers hopping on a bus in the still-dark chill of a March morning at the Stephen Center homeless shelter and heading north toward he knew not what.

When the bus pulled on to the campus of Creighton University, he felt a twinge of anxiety. What was a busload of homeless people doing at a college? But when friendly faces greeted Schinke and the other visitors, he started letting his guard down. Ushered toward the Kiewit Fitness Center, he was helped to a hot breakfast and asked if there were any medical or social services he needed.

It was then that Schinke discovered he was in the warm embrace of Project Homeless Connect Omaha, a one-stop event for the homeless community in Omaha where people can get hot food, medical and dental checkups, make potential living arrangements and address other social service needs they might have.

Three years later, at Project Homeless Connect Omaha 2017 at Creighton, Schinke is back — not as a guest, but with a job and a purpose to help people who were once in situations like he was in.

“It was an incredible feeling to have someone sit down with you, face to face, talk to you like a human being and give you some hope,” said Schinke, who works with Oxford House Inc., helping people in recovery from alcoholism and addiction find sober living in Omaha. “For me, to be back three years later and to help out, it gives me more of that hope. To think that three years ago I was sitting where these folks are sitting, it fills you with gratitude and humility. It fills you with a sense of wanting to give back and show them, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’”

Creighton marked the 10th anniversary of hosting Project Homeless Connect Omaha on March 31, a bit of a dubious observation, given that homelessness remains enough of a scourge in the city for more than 400 homeless people to come through the doors for this year’s event. But since the work remains to be done, Creighton and the greater Omaha community have combined to continue doing it.

Ed Shada, BS’79, is founder and CEO of Project Homeless Connect Omaha, an event he envisioned as eliminating homelessness and which annually takes place at Creighton to continue the charge. The event has also spread to other cities in the region, including Lincoln and Kansas City.

“I had hoped I’d put myself out of business by now,” Shada said. “But to be able to provide that first intervention for someone who is homeless, this continues to be a necessary event. And today, again, has been absolutely brilliant thanks to the outpouring of support we receive from Creighton and from our volunteers. We could not do this without Creighton University and everyone from Creighton who steps up to help.”

Creighton students, faculty and staff account for several hundred volunteers at the event, helping connect homeless guests with services.

Henry Tarnue, a second-year pharmacy student serving at his second Project Homeless Connect event, helped show a few guests around during his turn as a navigator. He said the event is the spirit of Creighton’s mission in action and the service has helped him find gratitude and solace.

“You get busy and lost in your own thing sometimes as a student,” Tarnue said. “But you come here and you see what people are facing in homelessness and you get into action by coming to physically meet them and talk with them. Creighton is very good about promoting that idea in students.”

The face-to-face contact is perhaps the first and most enduring element guests at Project Homeless Connect mention.

Mary Kate Castellano, a junior in the Heider College of Business, was volunteering as a navigator at her second Project Homeless Connect event.

“It’s person to person,” she said. “And it makes a difference in being able to connect with someone here, stand by them, talk to them, wait with them. And it says a lot about Creighton that it’s not just students or faculty or staff, it’s everyone coming together, from every department and office, to come and care for someone in our community.”

With a future career in health care, Tarnue also said the event provides students an opportunity to practice crucial components of treatment, chief among them: compassion.

“It’s a unique learning opportunity to help out and gain some experience,” he said. “We may encounter people who are homeless when we go into practice. It helps to be able to see where they’re coming from.”

For someone like Schinke, who has walked that road, the outpouring of kindness and the interest shown in each person by the volunteers was a major factor in his own path out of homelessness. “It gave me hope,” he said.

“Just those little things — being kind to someone, talking to someone — can be a big deal to someone dealing with homelessness. It’s huge, really. When another person reaches out a hand and they don’t expect anything in return, you can make a difference in someone’s life. That’s what Project Homeless Connect is all about.”


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