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Archdiocese shares building space to help the homeless in Omaha

Up to 120 homeless men, women and children in Omaha continue to have a place to sleep, warm meals and access to social service programs thanks to an agreement between St. Mary Parish and the Stephen Center in south Omaha.

The Stephen Center's former emergency shelter is being demolished and replaced at the same location by an $8.5 million facility, so a temporary shelter opened July 19 about eight blocks away in the former school building on the St. Mary campus.

The school building will continue to serve as the organization's emergency shelter until the new facility is finished in September or October 2014, said Del Bomberger, chief executive officer of the Stephen Center.

Bomberger said he came up with the idea while driving past the empty school building on his way to work each day. The partnership fits the Stephen Center's and the Catholic Church's missions of caring for the poor, and he is grateful for the parish's and archdiocese's generosity, Bomberger said.

"It's really been a blessing," he said.

The original construction plan, Bomberger said, was to build the new facility in two phases around the existing structure. But that proved to be expensive and possibly dangerous to clients living in the construction zone, he said.

Father William Sanderson, pastor of St. Mary and St. Francis of Assisi Parish, and archdiocesan officials worked to make the alternate plan a reality after Bomberger and Gwen Teeple, chief financial officer for the Stephen Center, approached Father Sanderson with the idea in February, Bomberger said.

Father Sanderson said the partnership is a natural extension of a neighborly relationship that includes some parishioners who even before the move regularly donated items to the shelter and volunteered to work there.

"We can do something, at least in a small way, to help them out," Father Sanderson said.

Under the agreement, the Stephen Center is paying for operational costs such as heating, electricity and insurance and $1 a year in rent for the building, which housed St. Mary Elementary School from 1912 to 2005 and St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey Catholic High School from 2007 to 2011, Bomberger said.

Two months into the arrangement, both Bomberger and Father Sanderson said the parish and shelter staff members have worked well together. There are designated parking spots in the back of the school building for shelter clients and volunteers and staff to keep the church lot open for Mass and funerals. And on Nov. 3, shelter staffers who prepare food for clients will share the kitchen with parishioners busy cooking meals for St. Mary's fall dinner.

"We'll do our best to work side by side," Father Sanderson said.

Bomberger said the four-story shelter being built will be an important improvement to Stephen Center's services, in part because it will have more space and allow more privacy for clients.

Until then, he said, the school building is an ideal location, with classrooms converted into sleeping areas and day rooms, showers in the gymnasium's locker room, better kitchen facilities and more space than the building being demolished.

"This is what we call a shelter miracle," Bomberger said.

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