Douglas County Sheriff addresses incidents involving homeless people

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office has joined Omaha's homeless task force in an effort to find new solutions to the city's growing problem.
Published: Mar. 9, 2023 at 1:37 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - A dangerous interaction between a runner and a homeless person along a Douglas County trail earlier this week prompted the sheriff to get involved.

Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson said a woman was running along the Keystone Trail near 78th and Cass streets—right under that bridge—when someone approached her with a knife.

“(She) had been accosted by mentally ill, homeless individuals that had knives and scissors. And so he (her husband) contacted a county commissioner who called us. We came down to assess the problem,” Hanson said. “And this is kind of ‘ground zero’ of our challenges with mental health, addiction, and homelessness. This is where somebody lived: under this bridge. They’d live under these tarps.”

Thankfully the runner is OK, but this wasn’t the only incident involving a homeless person in that area.

“I spoke with a small business owner just this weekend,” Hanson told 6 News. “A gentleman who had been living under this bridge trespassed into his business was armed with a knife and accosted his business partner. Police came and arrested that individual, charged him accordingly; and 10 days later he reported to me that gentleman was living back under this bridge again.”

Hanson said that’s a concern for everyone.

“That doesn’t create a safe situation both for business owners, the law-abiding public that’s using this trail, or those homeless individuals themselves,” he said. “It’s a dangerous combination all around.”

Deputies left a notice to vacate that area that also contained information on resources.

“Where they could get help. Where they could find safe shelter. Where they could get help with addiction—and they ripped it up and they left it as so much litter left at the scene,” Hanson said.

There wasn’t anybody there when 6 News checked on Thursday. All that’s left behind there now is a river of trash—shopping carts, bikes, and even tubes that may have been used to take intravenous drugs. Not only is this an environmental issue, but it became one of public safety.

“This appears to be consistent with either meth or fentanyl drug bags, right here in this camp. Obviously, alcohol is a huge part of the problem,” Hanson said.

He said he is committing his office and manpower to help address the issue, joining the City of Omaha’s Task Force for Homeless Prevention. It’s a coordinated team with law enforcement, shelters, and other mental health resources.

An Omaha task force is addressing the growing number of those who need shelter in the community.

The sheriff’s office follows the work of Tamara Dwyer, Omaha’s new dedicated coordinator for the task force. 6 News tried to connect with her for this story to further discuss her new role, but city officials were unable to make her available for an interview in time for the broadcast. However, she did respond to questions after the requested deadline.

Dwyer offered her perspective on clearing encampments.

“National best practices tell us that we need to stop clearing encampments as that is only making someone’s time unsheltered last longer for many reasons,” Dwyer wrote to 6 News. “The more we move folks around, the harder it becomes for providers to build trust with people in need and connect with them to get them into housing quicker.”

Dwyer did visit the location on the Keystone Trail with street outreach staff to connect with those living there with a housing plan in some capacity.

“My support can look very different depending on each situation, but I believe that my support would be best used to ensure that folks are able to get into housing, either temporary or permanent, with dignity and as quickly as possible,” she said.

Dwyer also noted that she’s ready to work with Sheriff Hanson in their new collaboration as members of the taskforce.

6 News was also told that a new position at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office will focus on this issue.

“The virtue of being under a bridge, being kind of hidden away, they don’t get sometimes the attention they need or require,” Douglas County Chief Deputy Will Niemack said.

“There’s not going to be an easy solution, but unless we see the reality of it, we’re never going to be able to come to terms with the solution,” Hanson said.

For now, though, the immediate next steps for this area are to clean it out, something the sheriff said they will be working on in the coming weeks along with the county landfill. They will also be supporting Omaha Police to patrol any criminal activity in the area.

This is a developing story. Stay with 6 News for updates.