Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Amid cold snap, Milwaukee homeless shelters fill fast: Funding pinch, however, leaves them without overflow space
Troy Baughman (left) and Harry Gilmore, two homeless men, enjoy a smoke in the cold outside the Guest House homeless shelter Sunday.
Photo by Rick Wood for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 20, 2013
by Georgia Pabst
Homeless people filled Milwaukee's shelters Sunday as cold weather created challenges for shelters already stretched to capacity.
Advocates said this is the first time in memory that no overflow shelters have been available at the height of winter because of the lack of funds.
The National Weather Service was predicting a temperature of just 5 degrees all day long and wind chill factors from 15 to 25 below zero on Monday, following a cold and windy weekend. Tuesday was expected be only slightly warmer, with wind chill of 14 to 18 below zero. Temperatures aren't expected to moderate until Wednesday, when the high will be 19, said meteorologist Brian Hahn.
"Historically, overflow shelters would open up in mid-December and stay open until the end of March," said Joe Volk, the executive director of Community Advocates, who has worked on homeless issues for 30 years.
"I can't remember a year that we didn't have overflow between the Guest House and the Cathedral Center. There was always a hope that someone would come through with some money to pay for the overflow, and they did," he said.
Donna Rongholt-Migan, the director of the Cathedral Center shelter for women and families, said her shelter and the others are filled. The Cathedral Center could provide up to 12 additional cots for overflow each night, but the shelter has been unable to secure the necessary funding.
"We rely on private donors and foundations to pay for the overflow because it's not something that's government funded, but this year our grant requests and proposals for the overflow didn't come through," she said.
Guest House also typically provides overflow facilities, but this year it didn't get funding either, she said.
While the shelter is generally open from 5 p.m. to 10 a.m. on weekdays and noon on Sundays, the shelter has been staying open 24 hours a day during the blast of cold, Rongholt-Migan said.
With the severe cold, people will find some warm spot if they can, such as a library or abandoned building, said Volk. "But there's a concern when it gets this cold that it can be life-threatening and people can get into serious health issues. Frankly, we have to hope no one dies."
This year, as in recent years, the homeless population has increased. Each year since 2009 has shown an increase in homelessness of 15% a year, said Volk. In 2012 it was up another 12%, he said. The economy has taken its toll on low-income people, he said. And government funding for shelters has remained basically flat, he said.
"When the recession hit in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the public was very supportive of shelter and need organizations," said Rongholt-Migan. "But with things picking up, people's attention is elsewhere. The reality is that when the economy takes a tumble, the people we serve are hit first and they're the last to be impacted by any recovery."
That's been the case for Cynthia, 59, who has struggled since 2009 with eviction, the loss of a job, and a broken leg that left her relying on a cane to get around.
For a time the woman, who asked that only her first name be used, has lived with a family member. But other family members also fell on hard times and had to move back in, displacing her, she said Sunday.
With all the shelters filled, she was able to find some warmth at the Repairers of the Breach, a daytime center for the homeless where she spent Saturday night.
When the wind chill hits 10 degrees or less, the center stays open at night as an emergency warming room. There are no beds at the center, however, so those who come can sit in chairs or nap on pallets on the floor. Sunday night there were about 17 who took shelter, said MacCanon Brown, director of the center at 1335 W. Vliet St.
"We're able to accommodate 35 in our limited space, and police bring us people they find stranded," she said. "Police from as far away as Greenfield called and asked if they could bring in a homeless woman," she said. The answer was yes.
Cynthia said if she hadn't been taken in by the warming center, she would be walking the streets, or riding the bus.
"I have a bus pass and I could ride the bus all night," she said.
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