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Coronavirus: Volunteers Help Milwaukee-Area Homeless — One PB&J At A Time

Bonnie Halvorsen
Multiple generations pitch in to help the PBJ Express, including Bonnie Halvorsen's grandkids Nolan and Adriana.

City and county agencies with the help of private organizations have been scrambling over the last week to set up safe lodging for those most vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19 — people living in unsafe conditions, including those who are homeless. Individuals want to help too. People like Paulette Flynn are providing food.

"I’m here at Immanuel Church in Brookfield and I just am delivering a couple hundred PB&J sandwiches," Flynn says. "The group here goes out a couple times a week and provides food and other needs for our homeless neighbors."

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The program isn’t new, but Flynn's involvement is.

"I woke up one morning thinking about the volunteers they’ve relied on for years may be quarantined or people have lost jobs who used to give the peanut butter. Whenever you have an interruption like this, who’s going to get hurt the worst are those who are most vulnerable," she says.

Credit Paulette Flynn
Sandwich production at Paulette Flynn's house.

So Flynn reached out to friends in Milwaukee and Washington counties.

"Now we have a big enough team so people can make 50 sandwiches once a month. It took a couple of weeks to build that team, but folks realize we’re all in this together," she says.

Max Ramsey helped create the program, called StreetLife Communities, and he’s one of the people delivering what he calls survival resources.

"They live in cars, back in the woods, and we drive a route," Ramsey explains.

Actually, volunteers drive three different routes making a total of almost 40 stops throughout Milwaukee County.

"The people who need to know us know us and know where we will be and when ... There’s some things that we can’t do right now, like we are not providing clothing other than a brand new pair of socks that goes in the lunch bag. We basically put the food down, step away; they come pick the food up," Ramsey describes the COVID-19 protocol.

Ramsey says his group is among many others doing this work. But now, in the face of COVID-19, Ramsey sees what he calls heavy lifting going on.

"The big organizations are hustling to get people into safe space. Nobody cares who gets the credit, everybody’s working together. No organization is more important than another," he says.

Normally, Ramsey meets around 200 people along his route. Last time out he said it dropped to 140 because of those concerted rehousing efforts.

Will everyone on his route connect with housing? Ramsey has no idea. So, his volunteers will continue driving their routes and Paulette Flynn’s PBJ Express team (the name the group bestowed upon itself) will keep supplying sandwiches.

Credit Geeta Wadhwani
One of the PBJ teams includes Milwaukee residents Geeta and her kids Ben and Bek.

"It’s cool because it’s decentralized, so we don’t have a group of people around a kitchen table making sandwiches, we’re maintaining our physical distance. Folks are not stripping bear a whole bunch of bread and peanut butter. They’re getting just what they need for 50 [sandwiches] at their local store," Flynn says.

She feels it’s a good model of sustainability.

If you're listening to the story that's  the team's theme song you're hearing. Sometimes members hold virtual dance parties while making sandwiches.

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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