‘Huge game changer’: New $18M Siena Francis House shelter aims to treat homeless with dignity

By Kevin Cole / Omaha World-Herald staff writer

Dec 11, 2019

Siena Francis House guests can expect a more dignified experience when they walk into the new $18 million, 450-bed emergency shelter built to serve homeless adults in the Omaha area.

The 43,000-square-foot facility that will open Thursday at 1117 N. 17th St. boasts a $500,000 commercial kitchen, a large dining room, a clothing room and a dock where donated supplies can be dropped off. It also provides offices for case management staff and community partners such as Heartland Family Services that help people get back on their feet.

“I think it’s a huge game changer to put all of our services right here in the middle (of the campus),” said Linda Twomey, executive director of the Siena Francis House. “It will allow us to provide so many resources without all the movement from one building to another.”

An additional $12 million in donations will allow the existing overnight shelter to be renovated. It will become an addiction recovery center that can house 32 women and 48 men.

Twomey spoke Wednesday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that was attended by Mayor Jean Stothert, City Council members and numerous community leaders. The City of Omaha provided $2.5 million from its redevelopment fund for demolition and cleanup of a salvage yard that had occupied the location.

Stothert thanked all the private donors who made “safe, respectful housing” possible. Getting all the Siena Francis House homeless services under one roof is a big step in helping people find permanent work and housing, she said.

“Our goal must be to end homelessness … and each step that we take goes to that goal,” Stothert said.

The Siena Francis House is the largest homeless shelter in Nebraska. In 2018, it served 431,533 meals and provided emergency shelter to 3,435 individuals.

For many years, the Siena Francis House’s emergency overnight shelter has been overcrowded, typically providing shelter to an average of nearly 400 people a night with only 262 shelter beds. On any given night, homeless guests who were not assigned one of the beds slept on overflow mats or in chairs.

“This will allow us to serve our guests with dignity and respect,” said Tim Sully, the development director of the Siena Francis House. “Having them sleep on mats or in chairs does not send the message of hospitality that we are all about.”

Susan Morris, president of Heritage Services, the philanthropic nonprofit organization that raised funds for the project, said the new shelter is built to last “a minimum of 30 to 40 years.” Morris said she was surprised when Walter Scott Jr., retired executive of Kiewit Corp., told her the project would be completed earlier than scheduled.

“We had planned to open in April of 2020, but Walter Scott said they were moving that up by four months,” Morris said. “Walter said, ‘We’re not going to allow these homeless people go through another Christmas, another winter without this (facility).’ ”

Dan Neary, former CEO of Mutual of Omaha, served as chairman of the capital campaign for Heritage Services. He lauded public and private city leaders for getting the project finished.

“If you’ve lived in this city, you know there’s a long history of leadership stepping up,” Neary said after the ceremony. “When you see so much happening that’s positive, you feel an obligation to step up and do your part.”

Bruce Lauritzen, chairman of First National of Nebraska, called the project “a magnificent example” of the community coming together to help the less fortunate.

“I think it’s an amazing example of public and private coming together,” Lauritzen said. “We’ve had a lot of those in Omaha.”