Milwaukee Homeless Campers Are Scrambling To Find New Places To Live

Oct 18, 2019

Where do you go when you're homeless and you're being forced to relocate from the shelter you found under a bridge? That's the dilemma that dozens of people who have been living in a homeless camp, or "tent city," in downtown Milwaukee are facing. 

State officials have ordered campers to vacate the area near 6th and Clybourn streets by the end of the October, so work on a stormwater runoff project can begin. The camp started with a few makeshift shelters a couple years ago but has grown to more than 60 tents.  

The homeless camp is located under Interstate 794 in a heavy traffic area. Campers live among the constant noise of cars and buses driving by. The massive camp spans several square blocks. 

The camp features a sea of small tents, tables, chairs and couches — along with clothes, brooms, vacuum cleaners, and even pets.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

Keith Robinson came to Milwaukee from Little Rock, Ark. He's been living here since December 2018. He says officials from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) stopped by a few weeks ago, handing out notices stating that each resident would have to leave.

"They came and knocked on the tent and gave us this letter. It says I have to be out of here by the 31st," he says.

Robinson was surprised to receive the letter. It cites a state law that says camping on state highways is illegal and residents have until the end of the month to gather and remove their belongings. The letter urges people to seek help from shelter and homeless services that are available in the Milwaukee area. 

Keith Robinson shows the letter he received from the Wisconsin DOT. Robinson asked that his face not be shown.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

Robinson says he's been working with a local agency and hopes to find a place before the Oct. 31 deadline. He says homeless advocates have been stopping by and checking in with residents every day.

"We've got people out here who are trying to help. They've just got a waiting list and that's all. People come out here and feed us, so that's good," Robinson says.

One person who's been assisting is Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force. She's been passing out literature to campers, advising them of their rights under state and federal relocation laws.

Tussler believes the campers should be treated like residents because after all, she says the letter that each camper received reads "Dear temporary resident."

But, Robinson's letter reads "Dear temporary occupant."

Tussler says the state should be following the tenets of the law — such as giving 90 days' notice for relocation and providing assistance with moving.

"I think it's actually the state's responsibility under the law to have a plan because they're building up a public project and to provide relocation assistance to people in the form of personal help, in the form of social work or case management as well as cash benefits," Tussler says.

Tussler has set up a table at the camp for people to fill out a "Wisconsin Relocation Complaint," detailing their grievances. She says about 20 people have filled out the forms, and she sent them to the state last week.

Terry and Jason fill out complaint forms at a table set up by Tussler.
Credit Lauren Sigfusson

Campers named the Wisconsin DOT in their complaints. DOT Spokesman Mike Pyritz says they have no merit and reiterated some of the details from the letter that campers received. He says the area under the freeway is considered state right-of-way and it's illegal to camp there.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers says the state is working with local partners and he's confident that homeless campers will find other places to live by the end of the month.

"The important thing is that we find safe housing and I know we can do that because of all the partners we have. It's an ongoing process, but we believe it's going to be accomplished in a good way — and frankly a better way — for the people that are presently in tents," Evers says.

The DOT 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.