GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — While snow-glazed sidewalks and holiday lights bring cheer to many Green Bay residents, the cold meant something far from merry for Meg Sandri, a mother whose struggles with alcohol left her without housing stability and treatment options.
It’s a period in her life Sandri was grateful to call her past, thanks to the support of the New Community Shelter.
“Being homeless, it doesn’t discriminate,” Sandri said, standing in an embrace with her new husband, Chris, whom she met at the shelter. “It takes a lot of courage to act.”
Since June, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Green Bay has grown fivefold, according to Paul VanHandel, outreach coordinator for Newcap’s homeless outreach team.
It’s a crisis that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, with its compounding issues of economic hardship, the shuttering of in-person appointments and increasingly untenable mental health and substance abuse numbers.
Earlier this week, five Green Bay-area emergency centers — Golden House, House of Hope, St. John’s Ministries, New Community Shelter and Freedom House Ministries — convened at the New Community Shelter for an event called Look Homelessness in the Eye, the Green Bay Press-Gazette reported.
They came together with a message of unity.
The five centers now share one website that has information available for each clinic and its unique clientele. Through coordination and collaboration between organizations, they want people experiencing homelessness and housing instability to know there is room for them.
“So many times in a community, you might view shelters with similar missions as being in competition, but that’s really not what we are,” Jessica Diederich, president of Freedom House Ministries, said. “We are a support network for each other and for the homeless community. We want community members, donors and the homeless population to realize we work closely together and want what’s best for the community.”
The 16-room shelter at Freedom House Ministries allows families a secure place to stay while they get back on their feet. Clients living in one of Freedom House’s units are provided three meals a day and a 30-day deadline to become gainfully employed. It is a challenge made easier by the shelter’s preliminary background check and its relationship to many local companies in need of workers.
But the act of gaining stability after a rough period can be equally daunting for young single parents who need access to child care.
“If they can’t find child care, it’s just going to take that much longer for them to be able to start bringing that income in and saving or paying off debts,” Diederich said.
It’s a predicament that many working parents of young children, whether they’re low-income or financially stable, contend with on a regular basis.
When the National Association for the Education of Young Children surveyed 609 child care providers in Wisconsin, 76% reported staffing shortages, with 38% serving fewer children and 14% shortening their operation hours. As a result, there’s a 40% longer waiting period for parents in need of child care, with 29% of providers unable to open classrooms.
Numbers like this further imperil parents who lack alternative resources for their children, such as a family member or sitter.
Beth Hudak, director of community engagement at House of Hope, said people who have a larger network of support are “exponentially more likely to be self-sufficient.”
Hudak sees that same logic applying to the five local shelters, too.
“Why can’t we just be collaborative and a system of support for each other and for our clients?” Hudak said. “It makes so much more sense when you say it out loud.”
When Sandri, the formerly homeless woman, learned via text that her daughter was leaving her father’s home at 1 a.m. last year, Sandri was able to order her daughter an Uber to House of Hope. Sandri understood she was not in a position yet to support her daughter, but she knew exactly whom to call.
House of Hope is the only shelter facility in Wisconsin to offer housing to children from 0 to 17 years old through its Hope Center. It’s a service that complements shelters in the area, where clients within a family system need unique, additional resources.
“I feel blessed because I could call the House of Hope and they were like, ‘Yep, we have a room for her,‘” Sandri said. “They made sure she got her homework done. They were doing checks on her. She’s been with me full time ever since.”
Additionally, the Hope Center shelters 11- to 17-year-old minors who themselves have children.
“Families don’t have to be separated just because the parent happens to be a minor,” Hudak said.
For Hudak, the fact that House of Hope is the first organization in the state to offer this specific service means finding all the problems laid bare and, importantly, hidden.
“Often people in Brown County say things like ‘Well I didn’t know we had homeless people,’ which can be incredibly offensive because homelessness doesn’t define an individual. We have a large population of families with children experiencing homelessness, but the media has created a fiction of what homelessness actually looks like,” Hudak said. “We can’t fix a problem we can’t see.”
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 17,179 homeless children were enrolled in state public school in the 2019-20 school year. Of that population, 1,203 children resided in Brown County.
For shelters that serve domestic abuse survivors and people suffering from mental health, substance abuse and eviction, temporary is the operative word. Finding permanent residence and breaking the cycle of poverty requires a level of instruction and training that can only go so far.
Programs providing positive parenting awareness, résumé building, proper budgeting and Rent Smart courses offered by Freedom House, for example, can work with clients during their stay and keep them connected via an aftercare case manager, who stays in contact with clients for up to three years.
Diederich said spiraling back into poverty and homelessness can happen quickly without the proper trajectory.
“If you don’t want to work, you don’t get paid, and then you lose your child care assistance,” Diederich said. “It can spiral very quickly for people who are living paycheck to paycheck.”