Bringing Hope to the Omaha

Sign that is seen driving into Omaha, Nebraska for the Omaha Tribe

There are two signs posted along the entry to Macy, Nebraska, where United Church Homes operates an affordable senior housing community, OmahaCare Senior Living. One sign is a bright pink billboard screaming out the warning, “Meth Kills.” The second sign is a plaque recognizing the Omaha tribe’s courageous efforts to preserve its cultural identity after white settlers began arriving 200 years ago.

The pink billboard is a glaring commentary that substance abuse is a major issue among the modern-day Omaha, one that requires vigorous vigilance and intervention. The plaque is a reminder that this is the ancestral home of the Omaha, with a history that’s deep and rich and centuries old.

The truth lies somewhere in between. Life in Macy may be difficult, but it need not be hopeless.

Pervasive Poverty

Omaha buildingDrive around Macy and the poverty is evident, everywhere. While every home and vehicle has windows, glass is optional, replaced by plywood or a blanket or a sheet. People say these homes are abandoned, yet the cries of small children can be heard from within. Paint is liberally applied, although it’s as likely to be graffiti on the bricks as it is to be on the siding. Except for a lone convenience store, there are no other commercial enterprises. Statistical data drawn from the 2010 census describe the situation in detail. Nearly 65% of residents live below the poverty line. The per capita income is $5,600 per year. Unemployment runs rampant at 42%. There is no economy to speak of.

Powerful Yet Peaceful

Marlene Chavarria, the resident manager at OmahaCareIt’s easy to understand why people leave Macy. It’s hard to imagine why they return—yet many do return. Several people we met left the reservation, only to be drawn back to it—like Junior Dick and Linda Robinson (see the upcoming Winter 2015 issue of Spirit magazine) and Marlene Chavarria, the resident manager at OmahaCare.

There’s an intimacy between the Omaha and their homeland, a relationship that’s powerful yet peaceful. It’s reflected in Linda’s artwork, where the lines between humans and nature are blurred and blended. It’s evident in the fancy dancing of Junior, as he excels at a cultural expression that is tightly associated with the Omaha. It’s apparent in the hoop dancer Kevin whose demonstration at the local school is punctuated with Omaha language, rituals and pride. It’s there when Rufus describes his near mystical experience intoning the voice of the timber wolf following his grandmother’s funeral.

The reservation is what they know. It’s where they can find what they treasure: comfort, family, culture. Marlene explained the return phenomenon by telling an old tale. When Omaha tribe children are born, their mother buries part of their umbilical cord in the ground, as a way to connect them to their ancestral grounds. Should someone leave, even if they venture thousands of miles away for decades, they’re constantly called back.

It’s a siren call: come home.

United Church Homes & OmahaCare

United Church Homes’ relationship with Macy began almost 10 years ago when the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved UCH’s application to build OmahaCare, a senior housing community with a capacity for 15 residents. The decision to build a community in Macy was an expression of our mission, a living example of our commitment to social justice. Groundbreaking occurred in 2006, and the community first opened its doors in June 2007.

Maintaining full occupancy at the community has been challenging.

To qualify for admission, residents must be 62 years old and earn less than 50% of the area median income—roughly $21,000 for a single person, $24,000 for a couple—and meet background requirements, as specified by HUD. Income limits are set based by county or metropolitan statistical area.

In a place like Macy, it’s not the income requirement that’s difficult to satisfy. It’s the age requirement that’s proving to be more difficult to overcome.

That’s because so few of Macy’s residents are age 65 and over. According to the 2010 census, only 37 of 1,023 residents qualified. That’s only 3.6% of the population, compared with the national average of 13%. Immediately beyond the reservation’s borders, in neighboring Thurston County, Nebraska, the demographics return to the more normalized ratios found elsewhere in the United States.

Why the disparity?

There are several possible explanations, though the one(s) that stand up to scrutiny vary depending on one’s point of view. First, people do leave Macy because there’s no work there. Second, substance abuse, particularly involving alcohol, accelerates the mortality rate, and people do not typically live long enough to qualify for senior housing. Third, family dynamics unique to the Omaha tribe—where everyone is literally related to everyone else, and grandparents often end up raising their grandchildren—eliminates some candidates. Finally, there’s a perception that OmahaCare is too nice a place to live.

“OmahaCare is a very attractive option for seniors living in and around Macy,” said Cheryl Wickersham, vice president of housing. “Our accommodations are comfortable and safe, and we are respectful of the Omaha tribe’s culture and traditions.”

This is evident in the architecture of OmahaCare, where the community room’s rounded corners and the timbers outside the main entrance are consistent with Omaha building elements. Also, each of the community’s apartments was blessed by an Omaha tribe elder with the smoking of cedar prior to being initially occupied.

Limitations & Possibilities

It’s difficult to provide affordable housing for seniors in a town where there are so few seniors. Perhaps a more comprehensive approach to Macy is needed. That was part of the discussion that took place in August between UCH senior management and the Omaha tribal council.

“There are significant social issues facing the Omaha tribe,” said Cheryl. “The situation is very different from what we first saw there a decade ago. There has been a 40% decline in the number of seniors, and substance abuse has threatened to eliminate an entire generation of people aged 50-65. We may need to take a far different approach. We need to consider other solutions to address underlying issues that are unique to the Omaha tribe, while accommodating and respecting their cultural tenets.”

That means providing senior housing in Macy may not be limited to erecting an apartment building. It most likely will require being seen in a grander context of understanding how Omaha tribe seniors interact within their families and within their community. It will be an inter-generational opportunity, somehow achieved within the constraints of HUD regulations. And it will require the coordination of whatever community support services are available.

United Church Homes is engaged with the OmahaCare community. It’s an essential part of our mission, to provide assistance where it is needed and where it can be most useful. In Macy, it can mean the difference between life and death, between despair and hope.