This investigative project was published in The Marquette Tribune on Dec. 5. The project was accompanied by four narrative profiles of former homeless people in Milwaukee.
Repairers of the Breach, a homeless shelter located five blocks north of campus, is preparing for another long Milwaukee winter. Although the shelter is primarily a daytime resource for the homeless, it keeps its doors open at night when wind chill temperatures reach a life-threatening 10 degrees.
Mark Young, the shelter’s manager, is organizing two extra nighttime shifts with Repairers’ staff, which he said takes a huge toll of the resources of the shelter.
“It’s a hot mess,” Young said. “We serve about 60 people each night. Can you imagine people roaming the streets at 25 degrees below zero? They all come here.”
Unfortunately, the job does not seem to be getting any easier, as homelessness counts remain stagnant in Milwaukee and are increasing in Wisconsin, according to the Department of Administration’s Division of Housing.
A PROFILE ON WISCONSIN HOMELESSNESS
A long-term analysis of historical trends on homelessness is nearly impossible to conduct, as data on the issue is very limited. Most counts of homelessness in Wisconsin date back only to 2008.
This is mostly because there was no standard for shelters to collect data until Congress directed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to gather information on the issue in 2004. It took a few years for homeless programs around the state of Wisconsin to reliably use the data collecting applications known as the Homeless Management Information System.
Homeless data in Wisconsin is separated by regional programs referred to as a Continua of Care. These programs are coalitions of organizations dedicated to ending homelessness.
The Milwaukee CoC reports the greatest amount of Wisconsin homeless clients. According to the 2012 Wisconsin State of Homelessness Report, about 29 percent of all people taking advantage of emergency shelters in the state are in Milwaukee County.
The Milwaukee CoC is so large that it sheltered more people in 2012 than in the next three biggest CoCs in Wisconsin, covering the counties of Dane, Brown and Outagamie.
The 2012 report also showed homeless counts in Wisconsin increased substantially between 2008 and 2012. More than 23,000 homeless clients were reported to have taken advantage of emergency shelters in 2012, compared to about 18,000 in 2008.
This runs contrary to national numbers, which reported a 5.7 percent decline in homeless clients between 2008 and 2009. In Wisconsin, the number of people taking advantage of emergency shelters increased every year since 2008.
Unfortunately, the number of clients reported by emergency shelters largely underestimates the number of homeless people in the state. The data does not include the number of people who were turned away by shelters due to a lack of available space and those who avoid the shelter system altogether.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness uses point-in-time information — that is, it looks at homeless counts at one time rather than over the course of a year — and includes estimates of unsheltered homeless people.
Using this more comprehensive data, the National Alliance estimated Wisconsin’s homeless count increased by 4 percent between 2011 and 2012, making Wisconsin one of 28 states that saw an increase during that time period.
The National Alliance also estimated the number of unsheltered Wisconsin homeless increased by 35 percent during that time, making it the fifth fastest growing unsheltered, homeless population in the country.
Contrary to statewide data, Milwaukee homeless counts remained relatively stagnant in recent years.
As part of the Homeless Management Information System, the Milwaukee CoC collects point-in-time figures on its homeless population. The most recent data collection took place Jan. 30.
This collection showed a negligible increase in the Milwaukee homeless count from 1,432 people in 2012 to 1,442 in 2013.
The 2013 count, however, is a great improvement from the count reported in 2009. The Milwaukee CoC reports homelessness in the city dropped by 6.2 percent since 2009.
Also contrary to state data, the count of unsheltered homeless people in Milwaukee decreased by 60 percent in the past four years, from 220 in 2009 to 89 in 2013.
The reason for these numbers is difficult to pin down; however, an examination in the sub-populations of Milwaukee’s homeless may provide a better understanding.
The city’s count of homeless veterans who are severely mentally ill and who struggle with chronic substance abuse both slightly increased over the past three years.
On the other hand, the same numbers for unsheltered Milwaukee homeless all decreased in 2013. This is especially true for the number of unsheltered homeless people with chronic substance abuse, which decreased dramatically by 59 percent since 2011.
This may be due to a persistent rise in permanent supportive housing, which often provides housing upfront and help for illnesses and addictions. The Milwaukee CoC reports that beds in supportive housing increased by 45 percent since 2010.
A HUGE RACIAL DISPARITY
While serving as shelter manager of Repairers of the Breach, Mark Young said homelessness in Wisconsin does not seem to discriminate between races.
“I see just as many white homeless people as I do black,” Young said.
Unfortunately, that perfectly illustrates the problem. Wisconsin’s Division of Housing in the Department of Administration reported in 2012 that 51 percent of Wisconsin homeless are white and 41 percent are black. Black people, however, constitute only 6.5 percent of the total Wisconsin population according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This is not true for all minorities, though. Hispanics, for example, take up about 6.1 percent of the total Wisconsin population and make up roughly 6.6 percent of the homeless population.
Young suggested this disparity in the black population may contribute to a growing resentment based on race.
“(Black people) lost their dignity,” he said. “And it passes from generation to generation to generation.”
The Division of Housing reported, however, that the disparity slowly decreased over the recent years as white people comprise a slightly larger portion of the homeless population.
STUDENTS’ EFFORTS FOR CHANGE
Marquette students have a history volunteering at shelters and working to serve those who are homeless in Milwaukee.
Midnight Run, for example, is a student-led organization supervised by Campus Ministry was founded in 1988. Ever since, the organization has worked to serve the needs of the homeless and hungry of Milwaukee. The organization provides food at nine homeless sites around the city, including Repairers of the Breach.
Brittany White, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences and president of the Association of Social Welfare and Justice Students on campus, works in the kitchen of the Repairers site through Midnight Run, helping to serve the shelter’s daily lunch.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” White said. “I’ve absolutely fallen in love with those people.”
Beyond providing food, White and other Midnight Run volunteers worked in the organization’s weekly clothing drive. White also volunteered at Repairers as part of service learning, conducting a class on creative writing with the homeless at the shelter.
Maryann Radowski, service learning coordinator at the organization, said an average of about 20 Marquette students volunteer at the center each semester for service learning, which Radowski said increased in the last 5 years she worked at the shelter.
“I’ve really learned the importance of learning a person’s name,” White said. “A lot of times we clump homeless people into a single group, but I have been able to learn their individual names and faces.”
White said she wishes more students at Marquette had the opportunity to learn from the stories of the homeless, as she did at Repairers.
“We cannot let ourselves be ignorant anymore,” White said. “We have to take that step and acknowledge that we are living in a city that is facing numerous crises, but there’s so much room for change.”
In the spirit of sharing the stories of the homeless, the Tribune will partner with the Association of Social Welfare and Justice Students to bring members of Repairers of the Breach to campus to speak with students. The event will take place Thursday, Feb. 20 in the AMU Ballrooms at 12 p.m.
Click here to read about the experiences of four former homeless people who found sanctuary in Repairers of the Breach.
“All of those stereotypes that box people into one particular identity are so dangerous,” White said. “If there was one thing I can leave as my mark on Marquette’s campus, it would be to share those stories — even if it means changing the perspective of just one person.”