Expo, shelters challenge homelessnessHomelessness is paralyzing.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Homelessness is paralyzing.
“When you know where you’re going to put you head down at night, you feel secure,” said Barb Certa-Werner, executive director of Harbor House Crisis Shelters. “You’re able to work on other areas of your life.”
When finding a place to sleep is a daily challenge, she said, “You can’t do it.”
Every day in Douglas County, 600 people are homeless. They are not nameless or faceless.
“We’re talking about your neighbors, your friends, members of your family,” Certa-Werner said. “It could be you.”
A growing need
Area shelters are seeing a rising tide of clients.
At Solid Rock Safe Haven, a shelter for adult men, the number of occupied beds during the year rose to 4,395 in 2008, a 37 percent increase from 2007.
Harbor House provided emergency shelter for 454 women, children and families in 2008, a 56 percent increase from 2007. Of those 454, nearly half were children. In addition, Harbor House had to turn another 100 people away for lack of space.
“Everything’s getting tough in this economy,” said Millie Rounsville, executive director of Northwest Wisconsin Community Services Agency, which runs Solid Rock.
Both organizations also provide transitional housing, where participants stay for a longer period of time and are provided with extensive support services. Both programs are full.
People don’t choose to be homeless, said Certa-Werner.
“The majority of them just want a chance to get their life together,” she said. “They’re not out to get a free ride.”
Often, they have major obstacles to overcome. Last year, 27 percent of the adults who came to Harbor House had mental illnesses; another 30 percent had disabilities.
“They didn’t choose this,” Certa-Werner said.
A lengthy illness or a lost job can turn the American Dream into a nightmare. For the first time last year, Rounsville said, people came to NWCSA in need of shelter due to foreclosures. In the past, she said, the reason was eviction.
Some people get blindsided with homelessness. A growing number of rental foreclosures have left Douglas County residents in the cold. Sandy Al-Qudah, director of Catholic Community Service’s Housing Counseling Program, has taken an increased number of calls from misplaced tenants.
“They’ve been paying their rent,” she said. “They’re not just angry, they’re confused; they don’t know they don’t have rights anymore.”
All Al-Qudah can do is point them in the right direction by offering a list of area landlords or shooting an e-mail to a landlord to ask if they have an available apartment.
She urged renters to keep an eye on classified ads in the local newspaper. If they see their building in the legals section, about to be foreclosed, tenants can contact NWCSA or the Douglas County Health and Human Services department for assistance.
Those who are homeless, in danger of becoming homeless or in poverty can access a wide variety of agencies and programs Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Mariner Mall during the annual Housing Expo. A new event called Project Homeless Connect provides a one-stop shop of health and human services. It joins a network of providers — government, nonprofit and private — in one spot.
“It’s a great time to access services, many services, at once,” Al-Qudah said.
Volunteers will escort participants through Homeless Connect to help them find the services they need. A lunch will be provided as well as some personal care items.
A single e-mail netted $350 worth of toothbrushes and toothpaste for the event. One person contacted a family member, who contacted another family member, and so on until they came up with the large donation, Al-Qudah said.
In addition, community members are invited to join “Homeless Hands Around Superior” at 11 a.m. at the mall. The event raises awareness of homelessness and gives a visual representation of how many people go to bed homeless every night in Douglas County. The annual gathering reinforces that the community must face the issue together.
“It’s not about me; it’s not about you,” Certa-Werner said. “It’s about all of us working together to solve a problem.”
Looking for solutions
If Harbor House, a ministry of Faith United Methodist Church, closed tomorrow, Certa-Werner would be happy.
“The ultimate goal is that we’re not needed anymore,” she said.
One factor is lack of affordable rental housing, she said, especially for large families. Because they are almost impossible to place, large families face a trio of bad options: rent an apartment they can’t afford, go squeeze in with other family members or split their children up into foster homes or among family members.
“It breaks my heart they have to sacrifice being a family so they can find a place to live,” Certa Werner said.
Clients can stay at Harbor House 30 days, with possible short extensions. During that time, they get education on how to be good renters, a spot to send resumes out from and a chance to look for more permanent housing.
“When they leave here, 90 percent are not homeless,” Certa-Werner said. Yet there are always more waiting to take their place.