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City Leaders Look For Ways To End Homelessness In Milwaukee

Michelle Maternowski
Underneath the North Avenue bridge in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood in 2015.

On any given night in Milwaukee, there are around 200 people sleeping on the streets. With temperatures dipping well below freezing, there’s now a renewed push to find solutions for homelessness in the city. The issue was center stage at a Milwaukee Common Council Health and Public Safety meeting on Wednesday.

Sherri Tussler is executive director of the Hunger Task Force, but before that, she was founding executive director of the Hope House — a homeless shelter on Milwaukee’s south side. She says 20 years ago, her staff found ways to house people sleeping on the streets in Milwaukee.

READ: Homeless Tent Encampments On Rise In Milwaukee

First, she says the staff first reached out to the Red Cross, which opened the Cathedral Center. Then, the Hope House opened its conference room for women to sleep.

“We always opened for everyone at 32 degrees because that’s the temperature where tissue freezes. We let everyone in without a metal detector, without saying ‘oh, I’m sorry. You’re under the influence of some alcohol or some other substance,’ ” Tussler says.

She says organizations must be creative. Milwaukee currently has the capacity to house everyone she says, but rules put into place that shelters must abide by to receive funding is causing them to go against their mission of housing people. To get into a shelter these days, you first need to call helpline 211. Also, most shelters have strict rules. For example, the Milwaukee Rescue Mission requires people staying there to be in by 7 p.m.

Many ideas were tossed around, including opening the now vacant Ramada Inn hotel in downtown Milwaukee for temporary housing. The possibility of allowing people to stay in foreclosed homes — or even just to go there to learn about potential resources — was brought up.

Jarvis West, a community health coach who connects people to resources to keep them out of the hospital, says, “It’s hard to get resources if you have to worry about where am I going to go. All of these resources I can give these homeless people, they cannot either get there to these certain locations for these nonprofit agencies or the just, you know, that’s the last thing on their mind, their health. They don’t have anywhere to go, so a lot of these resources, I’m sitting on them. I have a lot of resources.”

READ: Advocacy Groups Release Plan To Significantly Curtail Homelessness In Wisconsin

One of the questions that came up during the hearing is whether Milwaukee has the capacity to open another shelter, not in terms of space, but trained people to run the facility. While many agree that training is necessary, there are also lots of people who say sometimes, you have to learn on the job.

The committee also heard from homeless outreach organizations such as Street Angels, the Salvation Army, the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, the Milwaukee Police Department and others.

The Public Safety and Health Committee plans to compile the suggestions and put together a report that city leaders hope will be the first step to getting everyone who wants to be off the street into housing.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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