The hidden face of homelessness in central Wisconsin
By Kris Leonhardt
CENTRAL WISCONSIN – Many experiencing homelessness do not show up in official figures. Often they find temporary accommodations or sometimes they simply just do not want to be found.
“Word gets around that we are going to go out and look for them in the night time, they’ll go and hide – many of them will hide; because, they do not want to be, No. 1, disturbed, and many times, they do not want to be found. They just want to be left alone in their privacy. It’s hard to find them,” said Stevens Point Salvation Army Director Ed Wilson, who has been working with the agency since 1984.
Most often those experiencing homelessness move about unnoticed during the day.
Tiffani Krueger was among a group of central Wisconsin residents that began pilgrimages to metro areas in 2013 to seek out those experiencing homelessness to help provide for them and “make them smile.”
“We went everywhere we could to see where people were in the community that were sleeping outdoors, just to go love on them, and bring supplies, bring gear, but it was more just a ‘be there for people concept’… It was a way to connect with people who were less fortunate,” recalled Tiffani Krueger, Evergreen Community Initiatives board chair.
“Once the community in Stevens Point found out that we were doing this, I started getting phone calls from people that were sleeping outside here in our own community.
“Within that first year, I ended up working with 97 people who were sleeping outdoors here in Stevens Point. I had no idea we had a homeless population.”
By the numbers
The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness said, “As of January 2019, Wisconsin had an estimated 4,538 experiencing homelessness on any given day, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of that total, 592 were family households, 359 were Veterans, 200 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 533 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.
“Public school data reported to the U.S. Department of Education during the 2017-18 school year shows that an estimated 18,853 public school students experienced homelessness over the course of the year. Of that total, 316 students were unsheltered, 2,257 were in shelters, 1,176 were in hotels/motels, and 15,104 were doubled up.”
Those numbers are based off of Point in Time count data, as well as information received from public schools.
Narrowing those numbers down a little more, a 2019 Homeless Management Information System report – reflecting 2018 counts – shows 230 emergency shelter clients in central Wisconsin, with 58 percent of them single adults, 40 percent families, and two percent of them children.
A changing environment
While many local agencies said the numbers of homeless individuals have remained pretty steady, the potential for an increase in the upcoming months is very likely.
“I do not believe these numbers are increasing state wide in general. I believe that people feel there is an increase in homelessness due to transient homeless households traveling to seek services, and because shelters are closed or at reduced capacity due to COVID-19, and COVID-related loss of employment, school closures, and parents needing to help teach their children at home and staying home to care for children,” said North Central Community Action Program (NCCAP) Executive Director Diane Sennholz.
“Numbers in the next six months will likely increase. Due to many not returning to work because of COVID-19, businesses closing, and the lack of affordable housing. Also with the current moratorium in place some households will choose to not pay their rent and will be evicted in January. Also many landlords will not be able to sustain their rental properties without income, and will sell the properties. Landlords need rent as they have mortgages and other payments too.”
“Numbers, I think, are pretty steady,” added Wilson. “But, what I am seeing is the age bracket (is changing.) It used to be the older gentlemen being the one that we would see that was typical that we would think of homeless. Now, we are seeing more younger, and we are seeing more families.”
Wilson added that he has also seen more government involvement in recent years.
“We’ve gone to that new philosophy of housing first, which the goal of the federal government is for us to get everybody housed and end homelessness. The way we do that is provide housing and then work from there. Get them off of the street, get them into an apartment or into a program, and then work on whatever things they need work on whether it is an addiction, or whether it is employment, mental health – to work on that after you get them housed,” he added.
But Sennholz said that agencies can run into challenges in serving those needs for potential clients, via previous evictions, bad credit scores, and previous criminal charges.
NCCAP administers to those experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless in Wood, Lincoln, and Marathon counties.
“NCCAP provides eviction and eviction prevention services through local funding agencies such as United Way and Salvation Army. NCCAP is also a No Wrong Door agency and all staff are trained in the Coordinated Entry system. Households who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless are eligible for Coordinated Entry. Once in the system we can pull from the Coordinated Entry List for our Supportive Housing Program, Rapid Re-Housing Program, Prevention Programs, and Tenant Based Rental Assistance Program,” Sennholz said.
In Portage County, the Salvation Army offers assistance in the form of emergency shelter, three meals a day, bus tickets to get to job interviews and doctor appointments, case management, laundry and showers, food pantry, rental assistance through four programs, clothing vouchers, and hygiene products. Evergreen Community Initiatives currently offers a kids closet, warming center, and personal hygiene pantry. The agency typically offers meals to those in need, but it is currently suspended due to COVID-19.
Central Wisconsin agencies serving those experiencing homelessness include: Stevens Point: Evergreen Community Initiatives, 715-252-7860; Salvation Army, 715-341-2437; Family Crisis Center, 715-343-7125. Marshfield: Marshfield Area United Way, 2-1-1. Wisconsin Rapids: Love, Inc., 715-424-5683; United Way of South Wood & Adams Counties, 2-1-1; Wausau: Salvation Army, 715-845-4272. All of Central Wisconsin: North Central Community Action Program, 715-424-2581.
How you can help
Sennholz said that giving to local agencies helps NCCAP and other programs provide for more clients.
“Donate to local agencies that partner with us to provide funding for assisting those households at risk. Local dollar funding through the United Way and Salvation Army serves over 2,500 families in Wood, Lincoln, and Marathon County. Without this funding we would see a huge increase in our Coordinated Entry system and make the waiting list impossible to work through. Several households would likely become homeless. This need will still be here when COVID related issues slow down,” Sennholz said.
Wilson adds that local food pantries need assistance more than ever, with some pantries currently empty of stock.
“I know for all of our food pantries, because all of us are sought out by the homeless and those that are in need, with the loss of two major food drives – which is the Boy Scouts and the postal drive – that’s hurt all of our pantries. I know one pantry; they just have nothing on their shelves,” Wilson explained.
In addition, Wilson stated that the Salvation Army is always in need of blankets, pillows, and linen.
“We go through that all of the time. Usually when somebody leaves, we will just let them take them with them. Not the pillows, but we will let them take the linen with them, a blanket; so, if they don’t find a permanent place that they at least have something to be able to cover themselves with. So, we provide that and that is always a big need for us,” he added.
For Evergreen, the need is people. With many of their volunteers being elderly, the current environment has taken a major source of helping hands from the organization.
“We lost a lot of volunteers, which is expected, because we had a lot of elderly people that were volunteering. They were really amazing and for years, we had a really good crew, but I anticipated that we would lose quite a few,” Krueger explained.
“We need volunteers. We are looking for a younger clientele, a younger group of volunteers to come in and help out.”