QUICK HIT: Why is unsheltered homelessness rising in Omaha?

So-called “unsheltered homelessness” has risen by eight-fold in the Omaha metro in the past decade. It’s costing the city, the prison system and our hospitals money, and costing the Omahans who are homeless years off their lives.

What happened: The number of people in the Omaha metro living homeless and unsheltered has risen faster than nearly every U.S. city in the past decade. 

Important context: The Omaha metro’s total homeless population remains one of the smallest in the nation.

The reasons for the rise of “unsheltered homeless” – Omahans living in tents, cars or in homeless encampments – are many, those interviewed say.  More people are avoiding shelters. Omaha’s tough housing market is pushing people over the edge. 

This rise in unsheltered homelessness has roiled a debate about how to handle encampments. Some say clearing them prolongs peoples’ homelessness. Others say allowing camps enables dangerous behavior.

In February, FFP reporter Chris Bowling met Roland Busby, a chronically homeless man living in a camp near 40th and Decatur streets. We spent months with him and his case manager to understand what unsheltered homeless, and a journey to housing, looks like in Omaha in 2024.

Why it matters: Homelessness is costly. 

It reduces life expectancy by 17.5 years on average. Caring for homeless people’s ailments and  health concerns costs the U.S. healthcare system billions each year.

Locally, nearly 20% of the Douglas County jail’s population is homeless or nearly homeless at any given time. Those inmates cost about $1 million per month to house.

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Getting someone into housing has been shown to reduce those costs, but it can take a difficult journey to get there, and it tends to get harder as a homeless Omahan becomes a chronically homeless Omahan like Busby. 

Read FFP reporter Chris Bowling’s reporting on Roland Busby and Omaha’s unsheltered homeless.

By Chris Bowling

Chris Bowling is an investigative reporter for Flatwater Free Press. Prior to joining Flatwater Free Press Chris was an investigative reporter and editor for The Reader, Omaha's alternative monthly newspaper where he focused on issues like climate change, housing, health, criminal justice and social issues. A native of Cincinnati, Bowling graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2018.

1 Comment

I really appreciate the in depth article on this topic. It was well written and very insightful. Sorry folks about the book I wrote earlier lol I am very passionate about this issue.



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