Douglas County Sheriff calls for unified approach to Omaha’s homeless crisis

The Douglas County Sheriff's Office turned to social media Friday asking for a balanced...
The Douglas County Sheriff's Office turned to social media Friday asking for a balanced solution to the ongoing homeless crisis in Omaha.
Published: Sep. 29, 2023 at 11:15 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - The posts on Twitter and Facebook were attention-getters, playing a 911 call in full.

“911, do you need police, fire, or medical?”

The message is loud and clear on the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office’s social media pages.

Sheriff Aaron Hanson wants everyone to listen.

“Law enforcement cannot solve the homeless crisis alone,” Hanson said.

The posts show a video of a homeless encampment in Millard, with the 911 call in the background.

Hanson wants to be clear: He’s calling for compassion and sees a huge problem, but saying his department has a job to do.

“When a homeless man is stealing bikes from kids in our neighborhoods, that’s unacceptable, and law enforcement has to step up and be that safety net, but it’s also law enforcement’s obligation to be honest about the scope of the challenge,“ Hanson said. “We’re the ones boots on the ground seeing it and we need to communicate it to policy levels on the state and federal level to find long-term solutions.”

So, the social media push is intended for everyone; county, city, and beyond.

“We need to keep people safe that live and work in these neighborhoods that these camp villages are in, but we also need to be compassionate for the people living in these tents,” Hanson said. “And so the education will help us to push our state and federal policymakers and leaders to build the infrastructure that we need to take these folks out from underneath bridges and tents and get them into structured, secure behavioral health [facilities] and help them reclaim a life of dignity.”

Local law enforcement in the county and the cities are often criticized for clearing out encampments, but Hanson says there are shelter beds and services for those who are well enough to utilize those services.

Being homeless is not a crime, he recognizes, but many are faced with health challenges and need help to find their way.

“How do we get individuals like that out of those environments, out of the tent, and into appropriate behavioral health so they can live a life of dignity and be productive citizens like the rest of us?” Hanson said.

Earlier this year, following a point-in-time assessment that showed a 200% increase in Omaha’s unsheltered population, the city’s new homeless services coordinator told 6 News that the time it takes to get off the streets and into a permanent home can be different for everyone.

“National best practices tell us that we need to stop clearing encampments,” Omaha’s Homeless Services Coordinator Tamara Dwyer said in a statement. “People should be able to go to a home of their own from an unsheltered situation.”

Looking at Douglas County as a whole, Hanson calls for a major infrastructure commitment.

“I’ve talked to the sheriff at Lancaster County [where] they try to get their mentally ill and challenged individuals into the Lincoln Regional Center but it’s full of people from all across the state,” Hanson said. “I think Omaha needs its own state-run behavioral health infrastructure for those very chronic cases. Something that’s safe and secure both for the individuals that are navigating behavioral health crises, but also the staff who work in it.”

The passage of LB 276, which is called the Adopt the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic Act, introduced by Sen. Anna Wishart from Lincoln, is intended to create more outpatient mental health and substance abuse services and crisis mental health services throughout the state.

Whether any of that money will fund a new state facility as Hanson proposes is unknown. There are currently three state Public Psychiatric Hospitals under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Those regional centers are in Lincoln, Hastings, and Norfolk.

The city features a variety of non-profit services, including the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless.

Because the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office posted those videos to social media late Friday afternoon, 6 News was only able to obtain Hanson’s remarks on the matter.