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Life's Voices: Carmen Pitre Helps Domestic Abuse Victims Pick up the Pieces

Marti Mikkelson

Each year, WUWM profiles the unsung heroes in Milwaukee. Today, we feature Carmen Pitre, executive director of the Sojourner Family Peace Center. It shelters and aids victims of domestic violence.

Carmen Pitre sits at a conference table in the new shelter for battered women that she’s envisioned for years. It’s a huge brick building covering a square block of Milwaukee’s central city and actually won’t open until February.

“As you can hear outside, we’re still under construction. We have been planning for this facility for about ten years, talking with partners and thinking about how we can better serve families who are hurting in our community,” Pitre says.

Pitre says the old shelter was tiny and located in an undisclosed place. The new one is located on 6th and Walnut and already has a welcome sign out front reading Sojourner Family Peace Center.

“We are moving our shelter to a public location, that’s a growing trend across the country for the past 20 years. It moves the issue out into the public square and it invites us to engage differently on this issue. I know there are women in every zip code who have been battered and are being hurt. We need more public discourse on this issue and we need to own it differently as a community,” Pitre says.

Pitre says not only will the new center house a 56-bed shelter, it will also be the new location of the Milwaukee Police Department’s sensitive crimes unit. All 44 officers plan to move into the building and provide around the clock investigation of cases. Other on-site partners include Aurora Health Care, Milwaukee Public Schools and Legal Action of Wisconsin.

Pitre understands the intricate needs of people striving to escape domestic abuse - she’s been working with its victims for much of her adult life. She also draws on personal experience.

“I grew up in a home where there was violence, so I know what it’s like to go to bed worried about what’s going to happen in the middle of the night. I was the kid on the school bus who didn’t want to get off the bus because I didn’t know what would happen. I decided as a kid that my life wasn’t going to be like this if I survived and that I would do whatever I could as a human being to stand for people who were hurt,” Pitre says.

What ​Pitre has done to help people who are hurting, is run an agency that serves 9,500 clients each year. She calls those numbers too high and admits the job can be frustrating. While she broke the cycle of violence in her life, she sees the problem infecting other families.

“Sometimes we see the grandkids of the grandmothers we served. It is part of the complexity and the problems we see in Milwaukee right now, this generational handoff of violence as an accepted behavior. When you’ve been exposed to violence, it’s traumatic and you live out that trauma in a variety of ways. Sometimes that means you get involved in hurting other people,” Pitre says.

Pitre believes the new center, with its centralized services, will help put a dent in the numbers in 2016. She’s also upbeat because of the generosity she witnesses.

“Recently we had two families we were working with who we relocated and they had nothing. They were sleeping on the floor. We were able to give these families blankets, pillows, silverware, socks, books. We loaded up two big carts and brought it out to the families. It’s special to be able to do that, but it is extra special to be able to do it during the holidays,” Pitre says.

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