Couple Tries To Help Elderly Homeless Woman In Omaha: Met With Suspicion, Broken Promises

(11-26-18) Why do we make it so difficult to help others? Here’s an email that I recently received. I have verified its facts.

Dear Pete,

I am writing from a possibly different perspective than you normally receive. My husband and I are trying to help an elderly person whom we did not know before helping her. I say trying to help her because we have not been successful thus far.  

While my story is about one woman, there are others whom I see everyday that are homeless and psychotic roaming our streets in Omaha. When walking my dog last week, we encountered a man who believed he was Jesus Christ. Another man with him said he was the Son of Satan. Both told me that they have been banned from shelters because they are insane. 

I’d like to introduce you to Geraldine. (Note from Pete. I elected to use a pseudonym but was told the woman’s actual name.)

 My husband and I have a Labrador retriever who is wide awake and ready for a walk at 5:00 a.m. most mornings. There are few people out in the Old Market area of Omaha where we walk – other than the two of us and some homeless people or people on a layover from the bus station. As one might expect, a lab attracts many people and it’s not uncommon that we get approached by others to pet my dog. 

Last spring I started noticing a familiar face.

She was usually just sitting outside by a coffee shop, but some mornings she would be lying on the sidewalk in such a deep sleep that she wouldn’t hear us walk by.  At first she would not look at me, but each morning as I walked by I said good morning. Eventually she started saying hello and then talking more. At first, my husband and I were not sure if she was homeless as she was very clean, wears earrings and paints her nails, most mornings she looked better than me. We thought maybe she had dementia and was leaving her apartment in the early mornings.  

As the weather started to get cooler, I finally decided to ask if she had a place to stay or if she had been outside all night.

Geraldine said that she had been there all night, but they were working on housing for her. She told me she had a daughter, and I asked if her daughter was nearby and was helping her. She said that they had not spoken in a long time. I told her if she ever needed help to let me know. 

 The next morning she approached me.

I told her my name and asked for hers. I asked if she had ever been to a shelter. Geraldine said they wouldn’t let her in and she didn’t know why. I asked if she received Social Security benefits, and she said she did, but could not access her bank account because her ID had been stolen. It soon became obvious that she had a serious mental illness. 

Geraldine said she had taken a train from Chicago to Denver for a vacation, but had gotten off at the wrong stop in Omaha. She told us that “they” had murdered her mother in Chicago and were shooting at her. When I asked who “they” were, she said she didn’t know, but there was an active murder investigation and people were after her. She cautioned that if anyone asked about her, I was to never tell them anything.

I told her I would look into housing options for her.

At that point, I didn’t know her last name and when I called shelters, they said she would need to be with me when I contacted them.  I found her on my way to work and together, we called three shelters. Indeed, Geraldine had been banned for threatening staff members. She said she would never threaten anyone and thought they were confusing her with someone else. I called one of the shelters on my own to make sure they were thinking of the right person because she had never shown any aggression to me. The woman at the shelter said, “Yeah she starts out that way, she’s on a 30 day ban.” 

Once I had learned her last name, I googled it. I was able to confirm through the Internet that she was from Chicago and I found a list of possible relatives. I cross referenced that list with Facebook to see if I had the right group of people. I searched their profiles to see who I thought might be safe for me to contact and who might be sympathetic.

On one Facebook page, I found a photo of Geraldine when she was younger.  However, I chose not to contact that individual directly. Instead, I contacted a woman who was Facebook friends with him. This woman had mentioned God frequently in her posts and was also listed as a possible relative of Geraldine’s. I thought she might be sympathetic.  I also was able to identify another person who I thought might have been Geraldine’s daughter. (I don’t want to use names for privacy reasons.)

Both of the people whom I contacted through Facebook claimed that they didn’t know her. I found that odd because one of their Facebook posts clearly had a picture of Geraldine, but there was no point in arguing.  If they didn’t want to get involved, that was their choice.

My husband and I decided that we had to do something to get her help.

Since Geraldine was banned from shelters and had no family to advocate for her, we decided the only option was us getting her to a psychiatrist to get on some meds and hopefully get her into shelters and eventually into a supportive housing program. I started by calling a local agency that focuses on mental health care to ask about the correct process. They told me to take Geraldine to a specific agency. I found her on the street and asked her to go with me on a chilly, rainy Friday afternoon.

From the moment we entered, the social workers there were skeptical of us, perhaps because I am white and Geraldine is older and an African American. They separated us and said they would have to talk to her in private. Approximately two hours went by, and I was hoping that they had gotten her into their system and approved for her to go into a shelter.

Instead, they told me that Geraldine had been banned from local shelters, which I had already told them. Then they told me that they didn’t have any overnight services where she could go. 

When I began asking them why they couldn’t help, the social worker said, “I’m not sure about the nature of your relationship with her.”

I wasn’t certain what this person was implying but it was definitely not meant to be complimentary. I tersely replied that the nature of my relationship with her was that I wanted to help her. I explained that I saw her in the mornings when I walked my dog and reminded them that she was an elderly woman living on our streets.

At that point, this worker was more receptive to answering my questions. I was told that Geraldine had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and, therefore, should have been receiving help from our local mental health agency.  I was told to take her there to get help but this was on a Friday afternoon and Geraldine needed a place to stay over the weekend. I was told there was nothing anyone could do.

 I called a local shelter and again begged them to take her. They refused.

My husband and I wanted to get her into housing, but we felt we could not let her stay with us. We had to set boundaries.

Having failed to get shelters to help her, we had no choice but to take her back to her spot on the streets near the coffee shop. This broke my heart. I felt terrible. I had given her hope and had been certain I could help her, only to get nowhere. But she was surprisingly optimistic and told me that when she’d been interviewed, the people had been nice to her. That wasn’t what usually happened.

I promised her that I would try again on Monday to find her shelter.

I found her Monday morning and told her that my husband would be picking her up and driving her to the mental health agency that we’d been told was responsible for helping her.  She willingly went with and willingly completed the paperwork. My husband asked questions about the process and if we would need to drive her to appointments or how it works.

As I had experienced, they were skeptical of him. Why was this white man helping a black elderly woman?

Once he explained how we had met her, the folks there expressed surprise that two strangers would help someone on the street. Their attitudes changed and my husband became optimistic when a social worker at this agency told him that our homeless friend was a “perfect candidate” for their programs. Now that she was in their system, they would look out for her and handle future appointments to help her. The social worker told my husband that he needed to drive her to a certain shelter.

Now we were getting somewhere.

But when my husband got to the shelter, the shelter employee refused to let Geraldine inside. My husband tried to reason with them, explaining the obvious – that she had a serious mental illness and that they had been sent there by the agency responsible for helping her. At that point, the shelter director pulled the HIPAA card and told my husband that no one in the shelter could talk to him. It was a convenient way to keep from explaining why they were refusing to take her.

He persisted and asked her what people with psychosis were supposed to do if shelters refused them. That seemed to soften her and she explained that there was a “gap” in our system, especially when someone was as seriously ill as Geraldine. She had been banned as punishment for being mentally ill and acting out.

My husband and I were confounded. If shelters were not interested in help her, who were they helping? And if we didn’t help her, then who would? 

My husband drove to yet another shelter, hoping to convince the folks there to let her stay. They said they would, but couldn’t because all of their beds were filled. Sorry, move along.

At this point, my husband drove her to a coffee shop near where she had been living. He ran into a minister who was involved in a street ministry and this Reverend said she might be able to pull some strings for Geraldine. Fortunately, she was able to do exactly that, so my husband drove Geraldine to a different shelter which accepted her. He reminded Geraldine that it was going to be getting cold outside and she needed to stay put. She assured him that she would “be good.” He called the mental health agency to let them know she was at the shelter. They had assured us that they would help Geraldine.

The next thing we knew she was back on the streets.

I decided to go up the chain-of-command. I contacted a board member of the mental health agency. They told me that there were more homeless folks than Geraldine that needed help and there are several challenges.

The board member contacted the director of the agency and they sent an outreach team to Geraldine. I gave them my number in case they had questions or needed help locating her. This was another Friday afternoon and within a short time, I received a call. They said that Geraldine had been banned from shelters, and asked if she had any friends or family she could stay with. They said that it appeared that she received benefits and asked if it was possible that she had money.  This was all information that we’d already provided.

I explained that she had lost her ID and that I had contacted her family without success. They said they would take her some winter supplies for the weekend and follow up with her on Monday. I told them that I would drive by the coffee shop where she often was a customer on my way home to see if she was there and they said that I didn’t need to worry, they would find her.

I drove by anyway, saw her and phoned them. They said they had gone to the coffee shop but had not seen her. After I called, they went back later that night and gave her supplies.

Once again, we thought she would be getting help. We were wrong.

 The following Tuesday morning on our walk, Geraldine saw us and started walking with us. I asked if she had seen anyone from the agency. She confirmed that she had on Friday night and that she appreciated the supplies. I asked if they had come back to talk to her on Monday, and she said they had not.

I called the outreach team to find out why they hadn’t contacted her on Monday. They knew that Geraldine spent a majority of the time at the coffee shop so it should have been easy for them to find her. They said they had given her a card with their number and she hadn’t contacted them. How was she supposed to do that? I wondered. They said they had looked for her Monday but hadn’t found her.

My husband drove to the coffee shop and there she was – so I called them. The next day, I called to make certain that they had contacted her. This time I was told that Geraldine had not wanted to go with them to the agency. I told them that I would speak to her and bring her in. And they said that I didn’t need to do that. They would try to convince her on their own.

To date, she remains homeless.

I know our local mental health agency does a lot of good. I am not a judgmental or combative person. But my husband and I have found it frustrating that our efforts were met with resentment and resistance. We are disappointed that promises of help were not kept. Ironically, one of our local television stations had a news report last night about cold weather and the homeless. The reporter stated that the shelter never turns away anyone even if they are full. That misinformation is so unfortunate for the public to hear because it affirms the misconception of so many that there is help for these people if they wouldn’t resist it. 

My husband and I are not giving up on Geraldine.

I’ve contacted the regional head of the state agency responsible for helping the homeless. I received a response that in part read, “Your assertion is accurate that there are gaps in our system for individuals who are homeless who may be for one reason or another not able to stay at specific shelters as well as individuals that may not be consistently following through with the expectations from treatment providers. This greatly impacts the situation when the individual’s stability may be complicated by a lack of adherence to the medications or treatment services that may help them to get back on track.” They also referred me to the very agency that I told them I had already contacted. So the government agency that is responsible for providing services for both mental illness and homelessness acknowledged the gap in the system and essentially blamed it on mental health? 

We are determined to keep contacting officials until someone finally helps Geraldine.

My husband and I have heard lots of  “the world needs more people like you” and “God bless you for trying.”  But we don’t want praise, we want help for Geraldine and others in Omaha who are psychotic and homeless.  

Geraldine deserves better. 

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.