Photo of Sarah Hughes from Today's Omaha Woman magazine.

Sarah Hughes

Encouraging Kindness and Respect for Our Unhoused Neighbors

By Mary Lee Harvey Dircks
Photo by Ron Coleman, C4 Photography

You’re safe in your car with the radio on, air conditioner keeping you cool, as you wait for the traffic light to change. You turn your head and see a person standing on the median, looking a bit disheveled and holding a sign that reads, “Homeless. Anything will help.

 Do you help? Do you look away? Do you pass them a bottle of water, a granola bar, or maybe a few bucks? What do you think when you see them? Do you ever wonder what their story is, what brought them to this place in time? What do you do?

“Be human,” says Sarah Hughes, Housing Navigator at UnitedHealthcare. “Ask if you can help. Say hello, wave. You don’t have to give them anything but just treat them with kindness and respect because you have no idea what brought them to where they are right now or what they are doing to try and get out of it.”

Hughes has been working with the unhoused for over 14 years in some capacity. “I have really found my passion working with those that are underserved, the people who are looked over in our community who have the highest needs but get the least resources,” she says.

Her journey of service started in high school when she took her first job at a group home helping people with disabilities with daily living. “Within a few months of doing that I realized that helping people is what I was meant to do,” Hughes says. She continued in the human services field and later earned a Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Sciences at Bellevue University in 2015.

In 2010 Hughes was working for Heartland Family Service when she and a few other like-minded individuals collaborated with their agencies to start a street outreach team. “The goal at that time was to go out four hours a week to locate people sleeping outside under bridges, in tents, in their cars, street benches, pretty much anywhere not meant for someone to sleep at permanently,” she says. That team is still going today, with over 25 people doing outreach five times a week from three to five hours a day, she says. “The team has really grown, as has the population,” Hughes says. “Covid contributed to the increase, as did the increase in housing cost.”

A lot of the people Hughes serves are on Medicaid and receiving $914 per month. An apartment on the bus route that may have cost $550 per month before Covid now runs between $750 and $800, she says. “People who were renting can’t afford it anymore because when you have $914 and you have to pay your cell phone bill and utilities, you just can’t do it,” Hughes says. People on the verge end up homeless as a result and those who were already on the street stay homeless longer, she adds.

In 2016 Hughes saw that United Healthcare was looking for a housing navigator. “I will tell you that I think I applied for the job because I was curious why United Healthcare was hiring a housing navigator,” she says. “Why does insurance care about housing?” She quickly answered her own question. UnitedHealthcare is one of three plans to provide Nebraska Medicaid Managed Care physical health care services. “People who are on Medicaid are lower income folks, which includes the homeless population,” she says. “If you don’t have a place to lay your head at night then it’s hard to take care of your health,” Hughes says. “If we can help people live healthier lives that’s better for taxpayers, that’s better for society, that’s better for them, it’s better for their families. So, all the way around it’s a win-win for everybody,” she adds.

Hughes approaches her clients from a place of nonjudgment, compassion and patience, whether she’s meeting them on the street or through a referral. “I go in with no judgment at all. I don’t act like I know what people are going through. I know what homelessness is like from what I see at my job and what I hear from my clients, but I treat everybody as a single person because everybody’s situation is different. Meeting people where they’re at is huge for me,” she says. “I leave my bias at the door. I hear a story about somebody that might not be the most pleasant and I work with some people who have done things I wouldn’t want to be around, but I feel like everybody deserves a home and I try to just treat everybody with respect and compassion.”

A friend of hers noticed that Hughes treats the CEO the same way she treats somebody who is unhoused. “Well, they are not much different,” she says. “They are just people.”

Initially Hughes will do a screening to find out what a client’s needs may be. “Sometimes it’s as simple as needing a shower. Great, that’s easy. Let’s find you a place to get you a shower and then we’ll talk about housing and healthcare once we get that need met,” she says. If they have Medicaid through United Healthcare, Hughes can continue to get them connected to housing, healthcare, mental health services etc. If they aren’t on Medicaid, she helps get them signed up, and if they are on Medicaid through another managed care plan then she does a warm hand off to one of those other organizations. Hughes builds trusting relationships with her clients one client at a time and builds trusting relationships with community partners, various organizations, nonprofits, and agencies with referrals and recommendations, so that a warm and friendly hand off is smooth and seamless.

A lot of people have access to Medicaid in Nebraska but often need help updating their address. “If you don’t have a good address, then Medicaid can’t reach you,” Hughes says. “So, I do a lot of that. My goal is to help people with housing,” she says.

Sometimes that means homelessness diversion strategies like conflict resolution with current housing concerns with a landlord or a relative. That can also look like training life skills of how to be a good tenant, how to keep medical appointments and connecting them with medical services and transportation services.

“There are a lot of myths out there about homeless people that just aren’t true,” Hughes says. One is that they choose to be homeless. “I’ve never met a single person who wants to live outside or in a homeless shelter.” People who live out in the woods all by themselves are isolated, Hughes says. “You don’t have anybody to talk to. Sometimes street outreach teams are the only people they see as a connection back to the community. I don’t want anyone to have to live in the woods. I want everybody to have a home,” she says. And she’s working to make sure they do.