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North Platte center expands services to aid homeless people

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NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (AP) — The Connection Homeless Shelter began in 1994 and opened the doors to its current facility on July 19, 2010.

Executive Director Ashley Lewis, who is in her fourth year at the shelter, said service to the homeless continues to grow and develop. The organization celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019.

“Primarily we provide transitional housing and emergency shelter to individuals and families who are literally homeless,” Lewis told The North Platte Telegraph. “Our ultimate goal is to work toward permanent housing in whatever facet that may come from.”

For those who are interested in helping the shelter, a new program offers that opportunity.

“We have a rapid rehousing program that is funded through an emergency grant COVID assistance program,” Lewis said. “If anyone is getting rid of old furniture that is still in decent shape, or desks or housing items, we can use them.”

She said many people who qualify for the program don’t have any possessions for their new home.

“It’s hard to work on your mental health if you go home and have to sleep on the floor,” Lewis said, “or all of your money is going to eat out because they don’t have pots and pans.”

The shelter can help with some of those items, but often more is needed than is available.

The shelter spends a lot of time with case management as well.

“We do life skill building and budgeting, as well as hygiene,” Lewis said. “A lot of what helps our clients to stay out of here once they leave is building those skills that (most of us) take for granted.”

The skills most are taught when they were young, Lewis said, seem normal and natural.

“A lot of people didn’t have that upbringing, they didn’t have that opportunity to learn,” Lewis said. “Part of keeping a job is your personal hygiene because nobody wants to work around somebody who’s not very hygienic.”

Lewis started at the shelter as an intern. A short time later, then-director Beth DeFreeze announced she was leaving and the board invited Lewis to take the position.

“I love it here; I love what I do,” Lewis said. “Even on the rough days, the people, our clients keep me coming back.”

She said she has witnessed people who, because of mistreatment they’ve experienced or their lifestyle, might not be open to helping others.

“They take care of each other,” Lewis said. “That’s a wonderful human quality to be able to observe.”

Lewis believes in what the Connection does.

“People see the failures in any business and that’s hard to overlook,” Lewis said. “But the successes here are incredible. To see what people overcome and the changes they make and just the quality of life that they change in being here for a short time overrides the many failures that we see.”

Sometimes there is a misconception of who are served by the shelter.

“We serve some of the transient population,” Lewis said. “A lot of people talk about the train jumpers. We honestly don’t get a lot of those here.”

She said in the three-plus years she has served, perhaps a handful were transients.

“Most of our people are here on average for 90 days,” Lewis said. “They can stay up to 24 months in any 36-month period and we have those that do.”

Certain barriers and factors that bring people to the shelter require a longer stay to help them learn how to overcome those issues.

“We help them in a way that increases their stability,” Lewis said. “Some of those (factors) are hard to fight — addiction. I know a lot of people see homeless and that’s one of the first things that comes to mind and addiction is certainly a part of it.”

The shelter serves a lot of active addicts and a lot of recovering addicts.

“That’s definitely not easy,” Lewis said. “But it can be overcome, it can be addressed in a way that gets them stable and helps them to be contributing within our community. That does take a longer period of time.”

Other agencies in town help with the various aspects of getting the homeless back on their feet.

“We have a lot of good working relationships with a lot of our other agencies,” Lewis said. “I love that about North Platte. We seem to be really connected when it comes to our assisting agencies, which is super beneficial to anybody who needs a service.”

The shelter works with Families First Partnership, RDAP and Workforce Development, among others, depending on the client’s needs.

“We are primarily funded through the Nebraska Homeless Assistance program,” Lewis said. “Funding has come through Mid-Nebraska Foundation as well as other sources.”

Individual donations are one-third of the annual budget.

“I’m so grateful to our community because they always seem to come through,” Lewis said, “whether it’s financially or just in-kind donations.”

An 11-member board helps Lewis make decisions about shelter business.

“I feel really blessed,” Lewis said. “I have an incredible board who has been more than willing to help me learn and grow in my position.”

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