Reprinted from the December Network, page 9
As the year winds to an end and the weather becomes colder, many of Omaha’s homeless population seek refuge. This refuge was once able to be found at the Gene Leahy Mall of downtown Omaha. On Jan. 4 2019, Mayor Jean Stothert announced the renovation of the Gene Leahy Mall and riverfront area, coined as the Riverfront Revitalization project.
Kristyna Engdahl, the Director of Communications for the project, says the project hopes to bring Omaha back to the riverfront. “The design lends itself to a number of possibilities including live music performances and festivals, group fitness activities such as yoga or cross fit and state of the art play areas for children of all ages and abilities,” Engdahl said. The project is funded by $250 million donated by the philanthropic community of Omaha and $50 million from lease-purchase bonds. Construction began on March 1.
Before the area was a hard-hat zone, the park was called home by many who lacked one. The Gene Leahy Mall was heavily populated by homeless men, women and children. Many families sought refuge on the park’s stairs and even at the tops of the park’s classic aluminum slides. With the renovation forcing the population to leave the area, many Omahans are left concerned as to where this homeless community will seek shelter next.
Engdahl and other leaders of the project recognize the displacement of the population during this time, but also the dangers of Mall residents continuing to stay throughout construction. “An active construction zone presents many hazards, therefore, access must be restricted at this time, to prevent possible harm or injury to these already vulnerable members of our community,” Engdahl said.
The park served as a safe haven to so many because of its location and architecture. Located at 13th and Farnam, the mall is situated in the heart of Downtown Omaha. It is also within half a mile of Table Grace, a restaurant that charges by how much you can afford, and two and a half miles of the Open Door Mission, a homeless shelter that provides food, water and a much coveted bed to sleep on.
Junior Lily Dugan believes her recent visit, as a part of Junior Retreat, to the Open Door Mission has opened her eyes to the homeless. “I realized during our time there that the generosity shown at the shelter is so important. The people who make use of its resources truly need our help, especially as it gets colder,” Dugan said.
Junior Sidney Sledge, also having visited the Open Door Mission this year, says she hopes the Riverfront Revitalization Project encourages Marian girls and all of Omaha to make an effort to volunteer this winter. “I think the homeless people of Omaha are always in need of our help, but especially now, with the potential that many of these people could be losing their homes,” Sledge said.
The Riverfront Revitalization project maintains a strong stance that members of the homeless community will continue to be considered. Engdahl says herself and others on the project realize the importance of the park’s location to the homeless. “We hope the additional space at Siena-Francis House may help accommodate members of the homeless population in search of a warm place to stay,” Engdahl said.