Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Homelessness hits families as shelters feel squeezed

Ainsley Greif, 2, finds a cozy spot in a bed at the Value Inn in Oak Creek. She and her family had slept in their minivan for three nights because area homeless shelters didn’t have room, but then the Salvation Army got them a motel room for a few nights. (Photo by Angela Peterson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)


By Annysa Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Robyn Greif lay beneath the covers in an Oak Creek motel, the sounds of her small children around her, thinking for the first time in days: "We don't have to rush somewhere. We can feed our kids. We can shower today."

The family of seven had driven from South Carolina in search of work for Greif's husband, Sean, but had run out of money. They had spent three nights sleeping in their minivan because the area shelters were full.

The Salvation Army paid to house them at the motel, at least through last weekend, and their prospects for permanent housing look good.

But the Greifs represent a troubling trend in this time of economic turmoil: the growing number of homeless families - at a time when shelters are filled beyond capacity and state and federal dollars earmarked to run them are being cut.

"The situation, especially for families, is very tight in the shelter system," said Joe Volk, executive director of Community Advocates, which runs Milwaukee's largest shelter for families and abused women at 3025 W. Mitchell St.

"Like every family shelter, we put cots in the hallway, all kinds of things to make more room. But at some point, you have to say the inn is full."

Milwaukee has about 1,000 emergency shelter beds - about 300 of those targeted for families, according to the Shelter Task Force, a coalition of agencies that serve the homeless. Those beds - along with overflow spots in "warming rooms" around the area - have begun to fill up in recent weeks as temperatures drop.

"We had 14 last night. But I expect, if it stays this cold, we're going to be up to 20 very shortly," the Rev. Karen Hagen of Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church on the south side said during a recent cold spell. Tippecanoe began opening its doors to the homeless last year with all-night "prayer vigils," which allow them to provide the service without the red tape involved in running a formal shelter.

Tippecanoe, like most of the area's shelters and warming rooms, serves primarily adults. But families now represent a larger share of the nation's homeless population than ever before, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A HUD report released in the summer said the number of homeless people in families rose by 20% from 2007 to 2010.

Bob Waite, of the health and social service hotline Impact 2-1-1, said calls for housing assistance are up 18% this year. Housing calls made up 13.3% of all calls to 2-1-1 through November, compared with 11.7% last year, Waite said.

Because of the shortage of emergency shelter beds, families - especially larger ones such as the Greifs - must be split up between facilities, said Ken Schmidt, executive director of Hope House and head of the task force. Some will opt to sleep in cars rather than separate their families.

"We try not to have people sleeping on the floors, but if it gets that tight, we might have to go to that model," Schmidt said. "But we don't want people sleeping in cars. That's the worst-case scenario."

Family Struggles

The Greifs, with five children between the ages of 1 and 6, are not unusual in the circumstances that brought them to the shelter doors. Sean Greif, 35, said he worked as an auto mechanic in Rock Hill, S.C., but his paychecks dwindled as the company struggled. A friend of Robyn's in West Allis encouraged them to come north, so they loaded their children and belongings in their van.

When housing with the friend fell through, they spent two nights in a hotel before their money ran out. And they began eating at free meal programs and sleeping in the van at truck stops overnight.

Sean Greif has had two interviews. But even if he lands a job, it could be weeks before they scrape together enough money for a place to live.

"Hopefully, things will come together. That would mean the world for us," he said, before carting the family's belongings in plastic bags from the van into their hotel rooms Friday night.

An increase in beds for families seems unlikely, given the financial squeeze most shelters are experiencing with the cuts in state and federal funding, according to Schmidt.

"We had cuts of 10% to 12% in our community development block grants. And there's another 12% cut next year, so things are only going to get worse in 2012," he said.

Waiting List in Waukesha

A lack of funding forced two shelters operated by Hebron House of Hospitality in Waukesha to close earlier this year. Both have reopened after the community responded with $60,000 in donations and pledges.

Even with the two shelters up and running again, Hebron House is at capacity in its three shelters and has a waiting list of 16 families and 12 women hoping to find a spot at Sienna House, said Hebron House of Hospitality Executive Director Bernie Juno.

"People think homelessness is only in central cities and large urban areas. But the suburbs have real problems as well," Juno said. "We think of Waukesha as a wealthy community, but there are people here who come for the jobs, but can't afford housing where they work."

The Greifs, too, have benefited from an outpouring of generosity after word of their plight spread. The St. Vincent de Paul Society provided clothes and food. Well-wishers left gifts of money and coats - one card signed "Welcome new neighbor. Hope this helps." A trucking company called about a possible job for Sean.

"It's been amazing," Robyn Greif said in the warmth of her hotel room. "Every time someone shows up at the door - with snacks for the kids, or groceries - it hits me. It's just amazing."


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