Homeless community displaced as Gene Leahy Mall construction begins

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) -- Concerns are rising over what will happen with the homeless community, now that construction is beginning at Gene Leahy Mall.

"What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?” asks William Mitchell.

Mitchell is homeless. This morning he got a warm meal from a street outreach group, who’s at the Gene Leahy Mall every Wednesday serving dozens of people.

"I didn't have anything to eat and I just got fed,” Mitchell said. “It's raining cats and dogs and there's volunteers out who gave me a hot meal and a hot breakfast sandwich.”

Mitchell is concerned about what’s going to happen now that construction is beginning at the mall.
"People come down here.” explained Mitchell. “Us the homeless come down here and will sleep here in the summer - I'm in a shelter now and that's a blessing."

But he said there’s not always room at the shelters. The new 450-bed Siena-Francis House shelter is expected to open this December. But it won’t add much in terms of total bed numbers, once the older buildings are torn down or put to other use.

"We're putting a bandaid on things like this when we're displacing people and not giving them a place to go first,” Mitchell said.

He’s not sure what the future holds for him. As for the street outreach, ideally, they said the city, or someone, would provide them with a covered open-space to continue their work. But there’s a feeling of helplessness.

"There's not much we can do, just us.” said volunteer, Vicky Almonte. “Maybe if could get someone with higher rank, or someone within the community that could do better that will help us.”

According to the annual point-in-time count, there are about 2,000 homeless people in Omaha. Of those, roughly 1,300 have access to a shelter bed.

Organizations working with the homeless have been in talks about how to address the repercussions of the redevelopment of the Gene Leahy Mall, but so far no plans have been made concrete.