Access to Care

A Downtown clinic offers refuge and basic medical services for the homeless.

The photo on Bill Mullooly’s computer desktop is of Marko Buelow, an East Side man. Buelow is holding an ice scraper by its bristle-end and stooping between knitted yarn and spider plants. “Just a fascinating guy,” Mullooly says, and a wide-eyed illustration of why he does his job. Buelow was once a patient at the St. Ben’s Clinic in Downtown Milwaukee, a converted house near the Milwaukee County Courthouse, where Mullooly works as the lead social worker. Unlike most patients, Buelow wasn’t homeless, but he lived in uncertain circumstances, inhabiting an unheated flat above the G-Daddy’s BBC tavern on North Avenue, which he cleaned as rent. Buelow filled the space with his “art ark,” a collection of pack-rat curiosities that functioned as a personal museum until 2011, when he was asked to move.

Although he lived above one of the busiest intersections in the state, in the photo, Buelow looks more like someone marooned on a faraway island, with long white beard and tanned skin. Mullooly couldn’t say much about what had happened to Buelow in more recent years, only that he’s now being seen by “specialists.”

Bill Mullooly, lead social worker at St. Ben’s Clinic, has advocated for homeless people since college. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki.
Bill Mullooly, lead social worker at St. Ben’s Clinic, has advocated for homeless people since college. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki.

Most of the clinic’s patients don’t look the part as much as Buelow did. “Part of the shtick is blending in,” Mullooly says. “You don’t want to look like a homeless person, so you can gain access to places.” Such places lie along “trails” followed by the homeless. “Walking the trail” means to hike from meal site to public library to the St. Ben’s Clinic and back to a shelter, or some other combination of destinations. A common late-afternoon stop is the St. Ben’s Community Meal, held in the basement of the Catholic church that shares a block with the clinic and faces, with a rose-shaped window, the Milwaukee County Jail.

The clinic began operation in 1980, in a broom closet at the church. Two nurses from nearby St. Anthony’s Hospital, later demolished, invited homeless men who had visited the emergency room to stop there. In 1989, St. Mary’s Hospital (later to become Columbia St. Mary’s) took over the clinic, which moved to the present house on North Ninth Street and began a slow process of expansion under the auspices of the Capuchins, the order of Catholic friars that runs the nightly meal. Mullooly, who wears his hair in a tight ponytail, has worked at the clinic since the mid-1990s. On this Monday morning, he was wearing sandals with white socks and a hooded sweatshirt with a blue space cloud on the front. Over his desk hung a small crucifix fashioned out of wood.

Soon after the clinic opened on a recent day, a nurse practitioner, Tera, set to trimming calluses on a man’s feet, a side effect of the trail. Out of roughly 50 patients a week, most see one of the clinic’s N.P.’s or nurses for primary care. Some are ex-“frequent flyers” at local emergency rooms.

No one had shown up for a tuberculosis skin test today, which was unusual, as most shelters require them. While few patients are actively infected with the bacterial lung disease, others have been exposed to the pathogen, and their immune systems have quarantined it in their lungs, encapsulating it so it can’t spread. And while “the consumption” sounds like something from Angela’s Ashes, many homeless people have this “latent” form of the disease and test positive. Lucky for them, a follow-up exam confirms their latency and clears them for admission to the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, the Guest House or another shelter.

The clinic has a warm waiting room lit by a bay window, and not everyone who waits here has an appointment. A man wearing blue jeans and work boots sat fiddling with a spherical puzzle that required him to guide a small ball bearing through a twisting maze. “Just staying off the streets,” he tells Mullooly. “I think I’m about to finish the puzzle.”

The nurse who receives patients also serves as the clinic’s barista, handing Styrofoam cups of coffee over a waist-high door to anyone who wants one. A polite homeless man with a mannered way of speaking, Michael, often stops in midmorning for a cup while making his way across town. “Thanks for letting me hang out,” he says. “The library doesn’t open until noon.”

Michael is devoutly Catholic and attends Mass often. He has been homeless since he became estranged from his parents. He likes routines to the point of being rigid, and once had a job repairing medical equipment, though he hasn’t been able to find employment since. Housing programs are not for him, he says, because, “To get into this housing, you need to be pigeonholed as a mentally ill person, and I’m not a mentally ill person.”


St. Ben’s Clinic resides in a converted house, right, near a Catholic church and the county jail. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki.
St. Ben’s Clinic resides in a converted house, right, near a Catholic church and the county jail. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki.

Women made up most of the staff on this Monday, but represented a small minority of the patients. One of the latter, Cheryl, came in wearing a blue foot cast and plopped down a large purse next to the nurse’s station. No longer homeless, Cheryl had “got back on my feet,” she said, and was now living in a boarding house on North 13th Street through a housing program. “I had a stalker,” she told another patient. “He lived in my building. I had to get a restraining order on him. He followed me to the library one day and said, ‘I could snap your neck in three minutes.’” She was here today to get some skin cream and talk to one of the N.P.’s about feminine issues, she says.

The clinic’s basic flowchart deviates only slightly from that of a more traditional facility offering primary care, and it’s Mullooly’s office, shared with a part-time social worker, that diverts the normal flow of traffic. Many patients, before or after seeing a nurse, sit down to talk with Mullooly, who helps them to sign up for insurance or housing, and deals with other issues that may come up. He helps with resumes, and he used to drive people to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex until a clinic policy forbade driving patients.

Mullooly’s third or fourth patient of the day, Matt, was kicked out of a sober-living house in Madison in February and doesn’t yet have a doctor, he says, only a psychiatrist. “I’ve only seen the fellow twice this year,” he says. Although Matt is homeless, he’s well-groomed, and his snug black jeans and plaid shirt look fresh. The only sign that he’s bracing for the elements is a pair of snow boots, unusual for a dry day in the fifties.

He’s confident. “I have a decent resume,” he says. “I’m able to go get a job.” He lived in Florida until age 22, having moved down there with his mother and his father, a reserve soldier in the military and a drug rep for Pfizer. Originally a child of Kentucky, Matt became addicted to opiates, particularly oxycodone and heroin, and followed a winding road through Texas, Utah and Chicago.

Now, his problem is drinking, he says, as he uses heroin only sporadically. “I tried to explain to a police officer the difference between using something and being on it, and you’re having it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

The Guest House shelter, where he’s staying, uses breathalyzers to police alcohol use, which is forbidden. “I don’t want to get kicked out,” he says. “I keep telling myself, booze isn’t going out of style. It’ll be there. It could be worse. I don’t have any kids. It’s all on me right now.”

Mullooly gives a speech he’s given before. “What I’ve found with some of the shelters is the staff can be difficult,” he says. Some are former residents, “and sometimes those guys can be the best because they’ve been there. Other times, you give them a little power and they go nuts. If you ever want a place to just come and vent about that stuff, I’m here.”

As a student at St. Norbert College, Mullooly was part of a group of friends who started a small homeless shelter in Green Bay after hearing a speech by the housing activist Mitch Snyder. At Snyder’s funeral, in 1990, Mullooly picked up a small piece of wood engraved with the face of the man who, in a 1984 hunger strike, had compelled Ronald Reagan to spend $5 million on a homeless shelter. After the group’s first shelter was a success, Mullooly and other volunteers started another, in a bigger building, trusting that donations would come pouring in. They did.

Mullooly’s next client, Bill, walked in wearing a camouflage cap and carrying a workman’s reflective vest. He passed under the portrait of Snyder and explained how he’d found himself homeless again and staying at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission after a few years of sobriety and relative stability. He hadn’t relapsed, he says, but his landlord evicted him a few weeks ago. “I got so depressed I more or less quit my job,” he says.

The past Friday, Bill had stopped in at the clinic and spoken to Mullooly, who gave him two bus tickets: one for the Mental Health Complex, and another to come home. But like many homeless people, he lacked a safe place to store medication. At the Rescue Mission, staff ask for prescriptions and keep them locked up, he says, but he hides his.

Christian services come before meals at the Rescue Mission and are often the gateway through which men must pass to secure a bed for the night. “There are people who act like they’re really religious,” Bill says, “but you see them out on the streets and they’re doing drugs and drinking.”

Bill looks thin and has bags under his eyes, and he says the medication he’s taking is making him lightheaded. However he may feel, his boss, who he just spoke to, is happy to let him come back.

“They like me there,” he says. The job is doing roadside cleanup along Interstate 794 and outside BMO Harris banks.

Mullooly signs him up for a federally subsidized mobile phone, an “Obamaphone,” as they’re sometimes called. “A lot of my patients are not good at navigating bureaucracy,” Mullooly says. While the two men wait for a phone company representative to pick up, the speakerphone plays upbeat music.

Bill Mullooly chats with a familiar client. He’s worked at St. Ben’s Clinic for more than 20 years. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki.
Bill Mullooly chats with a familiar client. He’s worked at St. Ben’s Clinic for more than 20 years. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki.

Mullooly tells Bill about a rooming house on the East Side where a lot of formerly homeless people have ended up. It’s a busy place with small rooms. Some of them have sinks, and others are narrow, like closets, with just enough space for a mattress and dresser.

The next patient to sit across from Mullooly, Paul, is already living there. “It’s OK,” he says. “Everybody in there is a nut, even the manager. He’s a big boozer. He was in the Navy. He’s just a jerk.” The manager often sits down in the lobby drinking and smoking, even though residents are barred from doing so themselves. Before, Paul was living with a friend and paying him a small amount of rent every day, but the two had a falling out.

Sunglasses hang from his shirt, and sideburns cut across his cheeks. His left wrist is wrapped in an athletic bandage, and the back of his jacket is embroidered with a dragon.

A cook by profession, Paul says his rent is going up to $400 in April. “I’m going.”

“Where?” Mullooly says.

“Anywhere but here. Florida.”

“But dude, what about your mom?”

“This is no way to live.” He can’t stand the cold.

Mullooly says it’s warm outside, but Paul says you have to go through too much in Wisconsin to reach spring.

“We’re setting up a diagnostic colonoscopy,” Mullooly says. “Those are always fun.” He explains how Paul will have to restrict his diet the day before and eat only broth.

The clinic staff sometimes gets invited to the funerals of homeless patients. Meeting siblings and parents can be both startling and humanizing. “Life just unfolded in a different way,” Mullooly says. “A lot of people become homeless when their parents die, these odd ducks.”

‘Access to care’ appears in Milwaukee Health, a special issue from Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.