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San Francisco Media Blitz Tries to Reduce Homelessness. Could it Work in Milwaukee?

Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio
A few of the Cathedral Center's beds in the dormitory for unaccompanied women

A "media blitz" is underway in San Francisco this week. Dozens of news outlets are reporting on the city’s ongoing struggle with homelessness. Their goal is to encourage people to come up with solutions. No such action is planned in Milwaukee; however, one advocate for the homeless says an effort here could publicize the need for housing and funding.

Donna Rongholt-Migan says warmer climates, like California, are likely to have more homeless people than a place like Milwaukee. Yet the executive director of the Cathedral Center, a shelter in downtown Milwaukee, says the problem here is significant. She shares numbers from the last snapshot, which was taken in January.

"We counted nearly 1,500 individuals who were homeless in Milwaukee. Those are people who are very literally homeless, sleeping outside, sleeping in churches, as well as the people who are in shelters and transitional programs," Rongholt-Migan says. She says another survey is planned for July, and it probably will show higher numbers.

"In Milwaukee, homelessness outside increases during the warmer months, because of the warm weather, because people's hospitality kind of starts to wear thin after the cold months are over," Rongholt-Migan says.

The Cathedral Center is one of a number of shelters scattered throughout the heart of town. It houses families, as well as about 30 unaccompanied women. They stay in bunk beds with colorful bedding.

"What you see on the bunkbeds are handmade quilts. Volunteers purchase the material, make the quilts, then they'll bring them here and donate them," Rongholt-Migan says. She says the shelter always is busy. "Where you see an unmade bed is where we have a vacancy. That will typically be filled tonight."

The Cathedral Center provides a variety of services, including programs to help clients move into supported or independent housing. Rongholt-Migan says it can be a challenge, because "the housing inventory in Milwaukee is awful." She says even when the shelter's clients have federal housing vouchers to cover the full cost of their rent, they often can't get into a home.

"Those appropriate units are really difficult to find. They have to meet inspection. And then when you do find one, then the landlord has to be agreeable to working with this program, number one, and number two, has to be agreeable to working with a person who has a pretty spotty rental history," Rongholt-Migan says. She adds, that's where a media blitz -- like the one underway in San Francisco this week -- could make a difference. She says shelters here could urge sympathetic landlords to come forward, and advocates for the homeless could call for more funding.

We asked a Cathedral Center resident what message she'd share. The woman, who requested we refer to her as "Mary," says she'd ask big, local companies to give money to shelters so they could provide round-the-clock services. Most are closed during the day.

"I know it's like maybe two where they're all-day shelters, but then it's like the ones that don't have that, maybe they can open like a certain room for certain people that cannot go out.  Because I went through this winter, and this winter was nothing to play with," Mary says. She says she suffers from a mental illness, and while she tries to focus on the resources the shelter provides, her mind jumps into a "survival state" when she's forced to leave each day, regardless of the weather.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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