Hannah Michelle Bussa
Omaha has various mutual aid organizations across the city working on different projects and issues. This is an ongoing column featuring some of these organizations and the work they do.
Omaha Autonomous Action (OAA) formed just this year.
After spending time last winter volunteering with another mutual aid project, Omaha Street Medics’ Operation: Soup for My Family, Nick said he was inspired to organize OAA.
“OAA got started because we identified a need within the community for supplies – specifically for those staying outside the shelter system,” he said. “We believe that part of the reason the shelter system is unpopular is because it removes individuals’ sense of agency.”
James, another organizer for OAA, said her involvement with OAA began with a conversation discussing ways to bridge a connection between the individuals in Omaha’s unhoused community and the information needed to access the support or resources that may be available to them.
“These conversations were common among the folks I shared time with during mutual aid efforts that were formed at a grass roots level since the pandemic began,” they said.
James said they met Nick during the Operation: Soup project, and they learned in trial by error during that project, offering hot meals, survival supplies, first aid and clothing to folks without shelter and those struggling to maintain shelter.
“In so many ways, many people felt abandoned by their healthcare, their community, their local government and their advocates as we isolated,” they said. “‘We’, as a collective whole, were much more likely to survive if we listened to each other, if we could pay attention to what was needed in the moment.”
Nick said OAA doesn’t believe individuals in crisis should be locked up in a prison run by people with sociology degrees and that refusal of these services should not be a death sentence.
“By providing tarps, tents, food, clothing and harm reduction supplies, we give individuals the ability to self-determine how they live,” he said.
OAA decided to organize toward a broader goal that allowed them a great degree of freedom: “Well Being for All.”
OAA is a horizontally organized collective that maintains anarchist principles of anti-authoritarianism, anti-social hierarchy and anti-domination. Nick said they do not require members to hold certain political beliefs, as long as they agree to those tenants. OAA works alongside other mutual aid organizations when guided by those principles and their goal of well-being for all.
Nick said OAA primarily works to provide food, water, clothing, camping gear, batteries, a clean insulin needle exchange program, fentanyl test strips and Narcan if they have it available. They provide these services by request over social media or on their two distribution days a week.
“Thursdays we provide water, snacks and just do general social house calls,” Nick said. “Sundays we deliver weekly requests people asked us for the previous week, a hot meal and water. We also build care packages to give folks in the community to hand out that list a variety of resources – mutual aid or otherwise.”
David is another OAA organizer. He said he had some friends involved in OAA and wanted to find a place to devote some energy to help people and build some community.
“My first time down at the encampment was during a storm and it was an immediate slap in the face that I can put some time and money into something that helps people right now, free of religious pressure or means-testing,” they said.
He said in a way, mutual aid is a protest of societal hierarchies and the status quo.
“Before getting involved with OAA, I’d assumed the shelters were perfectly lovely places with all the services people would need to get on their feet, but that couldn’t be further from the truth from what I hear from people who have lived it,” he said. “I am optimistic for the future, but no amount of letter writing in this red state and hands-off city council city would have resulted in the amount of shelter and food we were able to help our neighbors out with.”
David said what is really striking to him is how easy it is for people to end up at the encampment.
“There are so many people who are one medical emergency away from becoming homeless and that’s a story I’ve seen over and over,” he said.
Nick said it is incredibly difficult to get a job or another place to live once someone loses their address. If the person has an eviction on their record, it is even more difficult.
“Without a housing-first solution, there is no ‘fixing’ the homeless ‘problem,’” he said. “Folks stay on the street because they have nowhere else to go. No amount of shelter beds will fix that. Housing first, questions second. It’s much simpler than the people in the halls of power want us to believe.”
Nick said Errico Malatesta starts his essay on mutual aid with, “Since it is a fact that man is a social animal whose existence depends on the continued physical and spiritual relations between human beings, these relations must be based either on affinity, solidarity and love, or on hostility and struggle.”
“To paraphrase this, mutual aid to me is the building of solidarity, affinity and love with the community,” Nick said. “By coming together and sharing skills and resources collectively, we actively build solidarity with those most in need of community. We take care of us.”
Nick said mutual aid is a form of attack aimed directly at the capitalist system of exploitation that enables people to go hungry on the streets, be displaced from their homes or suffer without attainable healthcare.
“The purpose of mutual aid is to build dual power,” he said. “By building systems of aid autonomous from the state, we are able to effectively build a new world within the bones of the old. When we are able to find each other and organize around the common goal of well-being for all, we have the ability to make a better world possible. Hope is at the core of mutual aid.”
He said mutual aid is important particularly after the start of the pandemic.
“We just saw the federal government actively abandon the people of this country in the name of profit,” he said. “It is very clear even with so-called ‘progressive’ leadership we need to be able to take care of our communities because there will be no one coming to save us but us.”
James said mutual aid can be a form of protest, but that isn’t their perspective, though protest can motivate people.
“I see value in anger and the way that it can invigorate us to stand up,” she said. “With this work, I don’t need any motivation but the empathy for who I meet and what I see with every new person.”
OAA primarily focuses their resources on mutual aid. David said that while they aren’t opposed to engaging with politicians, they don’t put as much effort there because of the responses they have gotten.
“I want to live in a world where we see everyone as our own family, and care for them in that way,” he said. “Much smarter people are advocating for the housing-first priorities that we need.”
Nick said the focus on mutual aid work over electoral politics is intentional.
“When you pursue change through electoral means, you are always forced to compromise on your goal with corrupt and reactionary politicians that never have the interests of the people at heart,” he said. “The money is far more effectively spent on providing immediate aid to those in need.”
Nick said even if electoral means were effective, state or privately run programs are often wildly inefficient and rarely address the root causes of poverty.
James said Omaha works to offer support and resources to the unhoused community, but there are many barriers that can make it difficult to qualify. The documents to provide and hoops to jump through in order to qualify and be approved for resources can be incredibly difficult for someone who has lost everything – even keeping paper dry is not a simple task.
“To be frank, the need was immediate, and there are ways that we as individuals can choose to help that an organization with regulations and systems in place may not have the ability to provide, let alone expedite,” they said. “Just as it began, Omaha Autonomous Action has evolved as it grows and new volunteers with new skills and knowledge continue to shift the group’s ability to meet any need.”
Nick said one of the largest advantages to mutual aid is its flexibility.
“Without a complicated network of grants and boards of directors to navigate, we are able to stay flexible to changing needs,” he said. “We were easily able to organize to provide hot meals, baked goods, and first aid kits to the striking workers at the Kellogg’s plant, for example. We were also able to effectively provide relief to the unhoused community after the two major storms this summer – both with material goods and tree clearing services. We were even able to clean up a couple of downed trees in neighborhoods.”
James said OAA will always be able to offer no more and no less than the capacity of the individuals that are within OAA at that time.
“This group of people are nothing short of amazing,” they said. “Along with our members, we have some incredible support from local organizations in the form of questions answered and an ear offered to point us in the right direction for a person in need of support. Although I understand how and why the barriers exist, this form of support is absolutely vital to the survival of so many individuals that I’ve met. I’m incredibly humbled and grateful. I’m grateful for the trust offered to me by the people I meet and support while working with this team.”
David said OAA can always use more like-minded volunteers with time to spare.
“We also need money and physical donations of supplies to continue the work,” he said. “100% of donations have gone toward supplies, food and support for the homeless. We’re a volunteer group.”
OAA is on Patreon to provide a sustainable source of monthly funding, as well as Venmo @OmahaAutonomous and Cashapp. They also accept physical donations. Connect with OAA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to follow their work or contact them about donating items or volunteering.