Thursday is the deadline for people living in a massive homeless camp in downtown Milwaukee to leave, so the state can begin work on a stormwater runoff project.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) passed out notices a few weeks ago to campers in the "tent city" near 6th and Clybourn streets, telling them they have to vacate by the end of October. State and county officials have been working with different agencies and have vowed that everybody will get the services that they need.
As of Monday, about two dozen tents remain at the camp, sprinkled between furniture items such as tables, chairs and couches. At the peak, there were more than 60 tents and nearly 100 people staying here. The camp spans several square blocks under Interstate 794, across from the Intermodal station in downtown Milwaukee. The state recently put up orange fencing around the place. Garbage is piled up in bins next to a bank of port-o-potties.
On Monday, only a few people were roaming around the camp, including Kathy Skrzypchak. She says she’s been living here for more than two months since the senior facility she was staying in was shut down. Skrzypchak says she's been working with an agency on a more permanent place to stay, but then lost contact.
"They don't come back and see me anymore. I haven't seen them for a good week and a half. So, I don't know where I’m going to go," she says.
But state and local officials have been telling people not to fret. Gov. Tony Evers said earlier this month that many partners are involved in helping campers relocate, and he's confident that everyone will find places to stay.
One agency that's been assisting is the Milwaukee County Salvation Army. Case Manager Tate Walters says the Salvation Army consolidated space at its "emergency lodge" on 7th and Walnut streets, north of downtown.
"We were able to fill all these rooms. A pair of cousins came in, a couple came in — we had to split them up in separate rooms because it's male-female — a family with a baby came in. So, we were able to bring in a total of 11 people that way," Walters says.
He says an additional 10 people are being housed in the basement of the Salvation Army's chapel. Walters says the organization plans to bring in a few more people from the camp, and the Salvation Army will then work to place everyone in more permanent housing. Walters acknowledges that some campers are still out there, and they may be reluctant to seek help.
"Some people have been resistant due to a myriad of issues — trauma from prison, past shelter stays, it could be a variety of things," Walters says.
Alderman Bob Bauman represents the downtown Milwaukee area. He thinks there are other reasons why some people resist help.
"There is a core of homeless individuals who, for whatever reason, don't want to go to shelters or don't want to go to other types of institutional housing. It's essentially a lawless community if you will, where they can come and go as they please, do what they want, nobody is looking over them, there are no rules and it's basically a free existence," Bauman says.
He says the camp featured a large sunny lawn and it provided shelter from bad weather via the wide bridges of the interstate, so conditions were ripe for it to grow. He expects many homeless people will live in shelters this winter, but says he wouldn't be surprised if the camp sprung up somewhere else in the area next summer.
DOT Spokesman Mike Pyritz says while the deadline for evacuation is Thursday, the department will “continue to work with Milwaukee County” in its effort to help the campers. He says the evacuation is needed because work will begin soon on a green infrastructure project under the freeway between North 2nd and North 13th streets.