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Green Bay Press-Gazette

'We have room': Five Green Bay shelters collaborate to address homelessness as unsheltered needs rise

By Natalie Eilbert, Green Bay Press-Gazette,


GREEN BAY - 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 on Tuesday, 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.

On Tuesday, 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.

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."

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'We have room for her'

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."

'We're going nowhere fast'

When VanHandel, outreach coordinator for Newcap, started tracking the homeless population living on the streets of Green Bay in June, he counted 15 people. By November, the number of people living on the streets grew to 72.

VanHandel isn't able to look at such a number without seeing a failure to support people who live with extreme chronic issues, from mental health problems to substance abuse or a combination of both.

"I've spent a lot of time this spring, summer and fall working with hollow shells of people," VanHandel said. "They do not know what is coming next and they don't know about a changing circumstance. They don't think about weather, time of day, safety."

Alexia Wood is the director of St. John's Homeless Shelter, which is one local facility that welcomes people actively using drugs, so long as those people are able to provide complete self-care.

"We're a low-barrier shelter that can serve individuals who are still on that journey to try to achieve sobriety," Wood said.

Drug use, especially the use of opioids, has been on the rise across Wisconsin since the pandemic began. According to the Department of Health Services, opioid overdose incidents increased by 47% since the start of the pandemic.

Wood said that increases in substance abuse depend on isolation, and studies suggest this correlation exists. Isolation has been an ongoing experience of the pandemic, Wood said, so it stands to reason that increases in drug use were only exacerbated by the ongoing health crisis.

She said during the pandemic roughly 80% of people will try at least one new drug while homeless.

"What we find is treatment is essentially ineffective if you get to the end of (treatment) and you're sober, but you're still homeless," Wood said. "Individuals will just say, 'Well, what what do I have to show for it?' and return to using."

St. John's has partnerships with Outreach Healthcare, an extension of New Community Clinic, Brown County Mental Health, and it has its own medical clinic on site.

Chris, Sandri's new husband, said on Tuesday that getting help required him, "a big, bad Army veteran," to swallow a lot of pride and ask for help from New Community Shelter. He struggled with substance abuse and PTSD when he walked into the shelter.

For others, they may be in too deep of addiction or mental health struggles to know there's a place for them to go.

VanHandel pointed out that if people struggling don't show up to a shelter, they won't be getting the necessary help. "You can't treat on the street," he said.

"For many of those on the street, we don't have a template for success," VanHandel said. "With what we have right now, we're getting nowhere fast. We can't go through another unsheltered season like we had this past year."

How to help

While it may be tempting to hand out clothing to people living on the street, VanHandel said doing so may be more of a detriment than a selfless gift. He instead recommends contacting local shelters.

The five organizations, in coordination with the Khrome Agency, have created free key fobs that, when scanned to your phone, bring you to . This is useful for those who may see someone in need and want easy access to the website.

VanHandel encourages anybody who knows someone in need or who sees someone struggling on the streets to email him at .

Freedom House Ministries serves families and individuals, providing people with the tools they need to thrive outside of its facility and on-site programs. They perform background checks prior to admitting people.

Golden House provides a safe house and support for domestic abuse victims and survivors.

House of Hope and the Hope Center provides emergency support to youth and families, and is the only shelter in Wisconsin that works with unaccompanied minors 0-17, teenage parents and families.

New Community Shelter provides year-round emergency shelter and guidance to adults. Clients suffering from alcoholism are breathalyzed on a nightly basis.

St. John's Ministries provide low-barrier support to substance abuse users, with medical assistance, rehab and detox efforts.

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Natalie Eilbert is a government watchdog reporter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. You can reach her at or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert .

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: 'We have room': Five Green Bay shelters collaborate to address homelessness as unsheltered needs rise

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