Tag Archives: Linda Persigehl

Apartments for the Homeless

October 24, 2018 by
Photography by provided

Once a month, Tiffany Le Colst teaches RentWise, an eight-hour class that educates new renters about the responsibilities of being good tenants.

“We go over scenarios that might come up and help clients decide how to best handle them. We ask, ‘Do you take the issue to the landlord? Do you deal with your neighbor directly? Or do you rectify the problem yourself?’”

For example: “Say there’s a music disturbance. We’d recommend they first approach their neighbor calmly about their concerns and try to come to an agreement. Ultimately, we want clients to build relationships with their neighbors and landlords so that they can keep their rental housing,” Le Colst says.

Her classes also teach renters their rights. “We make clients aware of what discrimination looks like, for example, and what to do if they find they are being discriminated against,” she says.

Le Colst’s role as teacher is one of her many duties as a landlord liaison for Together, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness in the Omaha community. The organization was founded in 1975 to help the hundreds of Omaha tornado victims left without food and shelter. Today, it provides case management, financial assistance, employment assistance, financial education, and other resources to nearly 22,000 individuals and families struggling with housing each year.

According to the Open Door Mission, approximately 2,000 people are homeless in Omaha every night.

Le Colst’s primary objective is to help the homeless find and maintain affordable, safe housing through Together’s Horizons program. She spends much of her time conducting housing inspections on properties before her clients sign a lease. “Typically, I’m checking for proper ventilation systems in kitchens and baths, making sure smoke detectors are operational, looking for signs of pest infestations, and ensuring electrical outlets are working.”

But not all landlords want inspections done on their properties. Sometimes, she must explain to them, “I do inspections to make sure normal maintenance on the property is done and meets the health and safety regulations to make a home habitable.”

Mediation is another aspect of Le Colst’s liaison position. “A lot of times, clients have barriers to attaining housing, such as having a felony record or a prior eviction debt that needs to be paid off. We evaluate what they’ve been denied for, then deal with the issue or get an appeal process going in hopes that they’ll be approved and can move in.”

She also mediates between landlord and tenant when a problem arises, helping to find a mutually agreeable solution and avoid eviction.

Le Colst makes great effort to treat her homeless clients with dignity and respect, without judgment, and to help them find the resources they need to get on their feet.

“People are homeless for many reasons,” she says. “Some are on a fixed income. For those clients, I try to mediate the cost of housing and get them connected with other resources like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]. Others can’t work because of a disability, and I help them connect with SSI [Supplemental Security Income] or other forms of income to help. Still others are fully capable of working, and we work with an employment specialist to determine their interests and what they’re physically capable of doing and help them find a job. Each case is different.”

Le Colst, who was born in Omaha, grew up in Texas in a military family. She moved back in 2006, earned a real estate certificate, and started a career in property management, working with Seldin Co., Lund Co., and Habitat for Humanity of Omaha before joining Together in December 2016.

“I realized I wanted to do more in the housing industry, and I have a heart for helping people,” she says. “Working closely with landlords while being able to help homeless individuals and families find a safe place to call home is truly the most rewarding job ever!”

Le Colst says her work is often made more challenging by economic factors, such as the subprime mortgage crisis of the past decade.

Many people who lost their homes in the crisis have now become renters, Le Colst explains. “With these more stable families, landlords are comfortable with raising rents and rental standards, which is now pushing low-income families into the shelters. There just is not enough affordable housing in our community to meet the need.”

Property management companies in Omaha typically set renter income requirements at three to four times the amount of rent, Le Colst says, while the average rent increase is three percent annually. These factors create more barriers for fixed- or zero-income clients, such as those on Social Security, she adds.

Jessica Jones, program director at Together, believes Le Colst is doing great work to meet these challenges and further Together’s mission. “When I hired Tiffany as landlord liaison, the position was brand-new,” Jones says. “With her hard work and professional yet personable demeanor, Tiffany has grown her position to be much more than originally designed. She has grown Together’s landlord base, recruiting over 20 new landlords in 2017. She explains our Horizons program to landlords and breaks down stereotypes of homeless individuals. She advocates for our clients, while also keeping the landlords’ needs and rights at the forefront.”

Jones is optimistic that Le Colst’s efforts will pay off going forward. “It’s our hope that landlords will volunteer to come talk with the [RentWise] class, and will accept the class certificate from our clients in lieu of good credit or references, giving them another chance.”

Le Colst has another goal in mind: setting up a landlord mitigation fund. “The funds would provide financial assurances for landlords concerned about additional risks related to damaged property, non-payment of rent, or eviction costs,” she says. “These funds could be accessed to cover expenses that exceed a tenant’s security deposit.”

This insurance policy of sorts would likely bring more landlords on board and offer housing options for those facing the greatest housing barriers, Le Colst adds.

“It’s especially rewarding when you have someone homeless for 20-plus years walk into their own apartment for the first time…It’s a profound moment,” she says. “You realize they do want a special place they can call home. They’re no different than the rest of us.” 


Visit togetheromaha.org for more information.

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Going to the Fair for 140+ Years

July 8, 2018 by
Photography by Douglas County Historical Society
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

4-H played a big part in Tracy Behnken’s youth. The Nebraska Extension educator, who grew up on a dairy farm near Bennington, showed dairy cattle and participated in horticulture and entomology competitions from the age of 8 to 18.

So when the Douglas County Fair rolled around each year, Behnken and her siblings filled with excitement. “I’m the youngest of four, and we all showed [livestock] and looked forward to fair time. We’d spend morning ‘til night there, caring for our animals. My cousins were there, and I got to see many of my classmates. And we’d get to see kids from across the county…reconnect with friends we’d made.” 

Behnken, 54, says a highlight was riding the Zipper carnival ride with friends, over and over again. She’d also go to the open-air auditorium and watch the song competition and fashion review show. “And I remember us girls trying to keep away from the 4-H boys who’d try to throw you in the stock tank,” she says, laughing. “They were an ornery bunch.”

The Douglas County Fair has created great memories like Behnken’s for countless Nebraskans for more than 140 years. And that longevity is no small feat, considering the changing landscape of the county, both geographically and culturally.

Just a couple of years ago, the fair appeared to be near an end. Its events and entertainment had been cut to the bone, attendance was dismal, and fair planners wondered if it could survive. 

1906 Douglas County Fair Ribbons

But today, with a new home and management, the fair is poised to make a comeback. So believes Matt Gunderson, chair of the Douglas County Fair Advisory Committee and president of Friends of Extension Foundation, which took over management this year. The 2018 fair will be held July 10 to 15 at Village Pointe in West Omaha and Chance Ridge Event Center in Elkhorn. Chance Ridge won’t have parking, so visitors will need to take weekend shuttles from lots at Village Pointe or Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn campus. 

To say that the fair has weathered many changes is an understatement. The first fair (in the area now known as Douglas County) was during 1858 in Saratoga prior to Nebraska statehood, according to the Douglas County Historical Society. But the official Douglas County Fair got its start on a parcel of land in Waterloo in the mid-1800s. A portion of property taxes paid by Nebraska landowners went to the Douglas County Agricultural Society, which initially funded the fair. 

“County fairs started as a means for the rural population to showcase what they’d done all year,” says Vernon Waldren, executive director of the Friends of Extension Foundation. “The farmers came out to show the quality crops they’d grown, compare the size of their melons, and show off their best livestock.”

“Eventually they added home economics—baking, sewing, and other domestics. Then 4-H started in 1902 and became part of Extension, and joined the fair with the goal of educating people about these things.” 

The fair steadily grew, adding musical acts, carnival games and rides, and other family fun. Held in late summer, the event lasted from five to 10 days. The fair stayed in Waterloo for over a century, until the fairgrounds were sold.

In 1988, the Douglas County Fair relocated to Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, with the Knights of Aksarben taking over management. The tract of land—bounded by 50th to 72nd and Leavenworth to Center streets—seemed a good fit, offering an indoor arena, a racetrack, and stables with plenty of room for exhibits, livestock, rides, and a midway. The location also brought the action closer to the population center, though not all were happy about the fair leaving a small-town setting. Participation by both 4-H and open-class competitors grew, as events were opened to kids from outside counties. The late-July fair was a boon to the city. 

In 2003, following the sale of Ak-Sar-Ben for development, the fair was forced to move again, this time settling at the Qwest Center Omaha in downtown. The fair combined with the River City Rodeo & Stock Show to become a four-day event in late September. The urban venue did not appeal to many traditional fair-goers, as events were moved indoors, and many complained the fair had lost its identity. But there was no denying the high turnout. “There were as many as 100,000 people in attendance during those four days,” Gunderson says.

The first few years at the Qwest Center (eventually renamed the CenturyLink Center), the fair offered carnival rides in the parking lot. “But economics dictated that that end pretty quick,” says Eddie Biwer, another Friends of Extension Foundation board member. “Too expensive.” 

“Also, the 4-H presence at the [Douglas County] fair was dropped,” Waldren says. “[The kids] went to the Sarpy County Fair. There were still open-class persons exhibiting, but not in those numbers.”

To keep the fair relevant in its new city setting, organizers recognized it had to become more diverse, Gunderson says. “We began hosting chess tournaments and robotics competitions. We worked to become more inclusive.” 

Douglas County Fair McArdle exhibit, 1910

In 2016, the Knights of Aksarben ended its oversight, and the rodeo/stock show parted ways with the fair. Management was turned over to the Douglas County Fair Foundation. During this uncertain time, the group chose to scale the fair back to three days in late July and sought out an inexpensive venue, choosing Crossroads Mall at 72nd and Dodge streets. Mostly vacant, the mall housed most of the fair events indoors, with a few bounce houses and a small petting zoo in an outside lot. 

The bare-bones fair offered some live music, a magic show, a Disney film screening, and the traditional cake and quilt shows. But without carnival rides and livestock events (rabbits and chickens were showcased indoors), the fair proved lackluster and had disappointing attendance. Fair organizers knew big changes had to come for it to survive.

Last year, the Douglas County Fair Board moved the event to Chance Ridge Event Center in rural Elkhorn. The one-day July event was a trial run to see if the venue would suit the needs of the fair going forward. Its tagline was “Back to the Dirt,” referencing the fair’s return to the country and the basics of a county fair (minus the carnival rides). It had the regulars—quilts, bunnies, a “sugar arts” baking competition, as well as a progress show (a livestock event for youth to practice their showcasing skills for the state fair). Like in past years, all events were open class, meaning anyone could compete. A beer garden and music concert closed the event. Though the fair did not boast big numbers, competition entries were up and it was received well by attendees. 

The Friends of Extension Foundation is hoping to sign a multi-year contract with Chance Ridge to continue hosting the Douglas County Fair, Gunderson says. With the help of new sponsors and additional marketing this year, organizers hope to build on this momentum. 

This year’s event tagline is “Where Urban and Rural Meet,” as the fair focuses on educating fairgoers on how agriculture relates to all of us, as well as pathways to careers in agriculture.

“One-third of all industries in Omaha are tied to agriculture in some way,” Gunderson says. “You can work in IT, as an accountant, a welder, or in transportation, and still play a part in agriculture and food production.”

Adds Waldren: “Even if you don’t want to work in agriculture, there are skills we teach to help in everyday life, like how to pick fresh produce or selection of meat…[teaching] people how to be better consumers.”

Gunderson realizes that building the fair back to the size it once was is unlikely given the more urban nature of Douglas County, not to mention club sports, technology, and summer camps competing for kids’ attention. But he hopes parents will take the time out for the fair to “create those special memories with their kids and grandkids, and spur that fire and interest in agriculture. It’s great family time.” 


For more information, visit douglascountyfair.org and douglascohistory.org.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.