The man is wearing white Nike’s, track pants and a puffy, black coat. He is African American, with missing teeth and a graying goatee. He is warm, friendly and articulate; Many others would be bitter in his position. Like nearly 50 percent of black men in Milwaukee, the man lost his job and hasn’t been able to find his footing since. The man said he is a resident of Milwaukee Rescue Mission, an enormous operation located just on the edge of the Marquette campus.
He used to be a forklift operator at the General Mills plant on Lincoln. When they began downsizing, he was let go. He moved in with his son and grandchildren but said he “didn’t like being a burden.” When his unemployment benefits ran out, he decided to strike out on his own. Four months later, he still can’t find a job. He’s been trying to pick up small labor jobs, here and there, and last week he made $35 for picking up shingles. He refuses to become a panhandler, hustling for cans or for cigarettes.
“A lot of people think that because you’re in a homeless shelter that you’re just a drug addict,” he said. “You would be surprised at the intelligence in there. You got people in there with degrees… But, a lot of them just lost their families, or houses or jobs.”
When asked whether he felt the stigma of being homeless, the man stares at the sidewalk.
“It’s kind of bad that we are right by those college apartments,” he said looking up. “We can tell the college kids feel…threatened. Some of the guys might say something to the girls, but we’re not going to bother nobody.”
MARQUETTE’S JESUIT NEIGHBOR
by Stephanie Beecher
The Milwaukee Rescue Mission, at 830 N. 19th Street, is the largest homeless organization in Milwaukee. The building nearly takes up an entire city block, with separate wings for men, women and their children. Marquette’s O’Donnell hall faces the shelter’s Southside, but the two worlds sitting on Nineteenth Street couldn’t be more different. Where the two institutions find similarity, however, is through the Jesuit tradition.
The Milwaukee Rescue Mission is a faith-based nonprofit working to restore the lives of the poor and displaced. Funded entirely by donors, more than 300 people sleep in its dorms on any given night. But, the center is much more than a homeless shelter, it is also an inner-city school, resource center and church. Their mission is clear: “transform lives through the love of Jesus Christ.”
The Milwaukee Rescue Mission was created by a group of Christian businessmen in 1893. Back then the center only served alcoholic and homeless men. Today, the center operates out of the old Wells Middle School building, which once also operated as “normal” school, educating college professors who taught around the city. It has also expanded its services to include a Christian elementary school, Crosstrainers Academy (K-5th grade), and a women and children’s sector. The organization employs more than 100 full and part-time staff members, and relies on nearly 900 volunteers for extra support. Several of their volunteers are Marquette students.
Ben Parmon is the assistant volunteer coordinator. He said while the center offers emergency services, such as shelter and food, the center’s goal is to help residents reach sustainable stability. To reach this goal, the center offers residents long-term and transitional living programs – LifeSkills and the FOCUS programs for men; New Life and the Fresh Start programs for women. Each program provides individuals with shelter and food, but also services like debt repayment, budgeting, job search skills and ministry. When participating in one of the transitional programs, FOCUS or Fresh Start, residents receive their own rooms. By agreeing to the terms of the program a profession of faith is required. While this may seem unfair or controversial, the center’s staff believes it is necessary.
“Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life,” Parmon said. “While there are physical needs, we feel such a need to share the spiritual side. These people can’t make a permanent change without a personal relationship with God.”
While a profession of faith isn’t required to receive services like shelter or clothing, participation in Christian-oriented activities is. In order to receive meals, for instance, men must attend a church service. A chapel is located within the center.
“Chapel service is daily for men before lunch and dinner,” said Courtney Wiher, the facility’s grant writer. “Mothers with children have chapel and worship together weekly, and are encouraged Sundays to find a church outside of the facility.”
Parmon explains that all of the residents are encouraged to find resources outside of Milwaukee Rescue Mission to deter any long-term dependence on the organization. “We really want to help them become independent in the long run,” Parmon said of the residents.
As simple as that may sound, Parmon said independence is a difficult trait to teach. Many of the residents are dealing with severe physical and emotional issues such as drug and alcohol addiction, broken or non-existent familial bonds, domestic violence and poverty. The shelter’s counselors, ministers, mentors and case managers work tenaciously to address these problems, Parmon said.
On a tour, Parmon shows off the facility’s many wings. The center is very clean and spacious. Although, residents mill about in the corridors or in recreational areas, The Warrior was not permitted to speak or photograph them. Parmon said this is to ensure the resident’s privacy. Colorful murals and inspirational quotes fill several of the center’s walls, and the rooms are all furnished with matching furniture. Nearly all the furniture is donated, Parmon said.
“We’re blessed,” he said. “We really try not to buy anything, unless we really, really have to.” This includes all of the resident’s clothing, toiletries, food and supplies, he said.
In Joy House, the women’s side of the facility, mothers begin their stay with a two-week instructional program. The classes teach parenting skills, nutrition, job search skills and Christian values. While mothers are learning the children are brought to a vibrant, childcare center, complete with games, books, arts and crafts supplies and toys. Parmon said it is important to make children feel safe and secure while they endure the pains of homelessness. Childcare volunteers are required to stay for months at a time, in order to ensure some sense of stability for the children, he said.
The women’s classes can last up to eight tedious hours a day, but the center feels this step is crucial for success.
“A lot of these women don’t even have a productive paradigm,” he said while showing off the women’s library. “They don’t have self-respect, or know how to discipline their children without hurting them.” According to Wiher, more than 40 percent of the women at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission have fled an abusive situation.
The women come to the sun-lit library to read or to search for jobs. Above the library’s entrance a woodcarving reads: “The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With One Step,” fitting encouragement for overwhelmed mothers. The inscription was discovered a few years ago when, after renovators tore down old dry wall, the quote and row upon row of wall bookshelves were revealed.
NOT THE HILTON
In the bedrooms, four beds and dressers sit against pale blue walls. The bedroom is empty, but Parmon said when the women and children are in for the night, it can get “intense.” Every resident is allowed to bring their belongings, which, along with bustling families, can create chaos. The women and children share a bathroom with other families.
“We always tell people ‘This is not the Hilton,’” Parmon joked.
In Safe Harbor, the men’s division, the rooms are filled with rows of bunk beds. They have a beautiful library with exposed timbers and brick and a day room, too. It is filled with games, books and computers. In an overflow room, men sit in plastic chairs. Parmon explains that the room is used for sleeping when the shelter is overcrowded.
“When you have that many people, you have to institutionalize it or it could crumble,” Parmon said.
Starting at 5:15 a.m. residents are awakened out of bed. From there, they go about their routines, eating breakfast, gathering their laundry, attending service, meeting with counselors, and searching for jobs. The residents are not allowed to be in the bedrooms during the day. Parmon said this is to ensure that they “don’t sleep all day and get out in the community.” While all residents must abide by an evening curfew, they are free to leave the shelter during the day.
When asked about those with drug addictions, Parmon notes that residents are drug tested in long-term programs. The center does their best to keep drugs and alcohol out of the facility, but Parmon points out:
“As long as the person is not harming themselves or others…” the center looks the other way. As “the hands and feet of Jesus Christ,” Parmon said the center’s staff members merely hope to reach all residents, and share the good news.