Meet five people willing to share the stories of their homelessness – from the streets to the shelters to the transient world of couch surfing.
You know about the shelters, offering a hot meal and a bed out of the cold. You’ve seen the people huddled under overpasses, sometimes holding signs asking for money. You saw the tent city under the Marquette Interchange, a place for people who had no other.
But Milwaukee’s homeless are many more in number and circumstances.
They include the men, women and children “couch surfing,” doubling or tripling up with relatives and friends, living in motels or hotels, or soon to be evicted.
On the positive side, there’s progress being made against traditional homelessness. The number of people in shelters or living on the street has dropped nearly by half in Milwaukee County in the last 10 years to 871 people in January 2018.
The plight of the “hidden homeless,” however, is getting worse.
Looking for ways to help the homeless in Milwaukee? These organizations do just that – and are eager for volunteers and donations.
“Right now we have a system that works once you are in the absolute worst place – outside or in an emergency shelter,” notes Emily Kenney, a member of Continuum of Care, a consortium of agencies battling homelessness. “What we haven’t figured out is making sure housing is available for everyone, and that it’s safe, stable and affordable.”
The best estimate comes from Milwaukee Public Schools, which is required by federal law to provide services to children who meet the broader definition of “homeless.”
Within MPS, 4,576 children were homeless at some point during the 2016-17 school year – almost 6 percent of the district’s students. A decade earlier, when enrollment was significantly higher, the number was 2,296. Factor in their parents, other adult men and women, and children in private schools or not of school age and you get a truer sense of the scope of homelessness in Milwaukee.
Behind these numbers are people – invariably proud and determined – with complicated lives who refuse to be defined by the term “homeless.” More often than not, their housing instability is related to larger issues: race, LGBTQ status, domestic violence, criminal convictions, health or poverty.
In the weeks surrounding New Year’s Day, Milwaukee Magazine interviewed a range of people who understand the realities of being without a place to call home. Here are their stories.
When the Past Blocks the Future
Since last June, 28-year-old Bria Burris and her 9- and 11-year-old daughters have been couch surfing – a euphemism for “I have no home and am crashing with friends, relatives and acquaintances.”
“I’ve thought about the question almost every day,” she wrote, “and I keep traveling back to, ‘It’s easy to judge character when you don’t know the story.’
“Everything in my life says that I would fail. I’m a statistic many times over. I’m a woman, I’m black. Born in prison, two drug-addicted parents, survivors of our ‘great’ foster system, survivor of sexual abuse, teen mother, single mother, low-income, convicted felon. And I’m sure I could go on.
“It’s easy to judge character when you don’t know the story.”
Burris’ mother kicked her out of their home when she was 15, and she got in with the wrong crowd. In 2012, she pleaded guilty to a felony charge for selling marijuana – with the understanding that her record would be expunged if she met various conditions, including community service, continuing her education and staying out of trouble.
Burris kept her end of the bargain, but because of a legal technicality, her record remains. She’s hopeful the technicality will be worked out. But so far, she says, that felony conviction has shut door after door – from financial aid to housing to employment.
“Everyone says, ‘Work hard, get yourself out of that hole,’” Burris says. “But if you have that felony label, how can you? You can’t even get a job interview.”
Burris does not know what the future holds. But she has learned that she is both determined and resilient. “I have to be, for my children,” she says. “I refuse to give them the lifestyle I endured as a child.”
A Father, Three Kids and a Truck
Aug. 14 was a balmy summer evening, a magical time in Milwaukee. But not for Ferdinand Rodriguez and his three children. They were homeless.
The air-conditioning didn’t work, but Rodriguez tried to make the SUV comfortable. The front seats were reclined and the back seats were laid back flat. He also had water, juice and snacks for his children, Felicity, 12; Michelle, 7; and Noah, 2.
“Daddy, I don’t want to sleep in the truck,” Michelle said as they settled in for the night. It broke Rodriguez’s heart.
“I prayed to God, and he heard my prayers,” he remembers. The next day, the emergency helpline 211 put him in touch with the shelter run by Hope House of Milwaukee.
“I just want to make sure my children have a roof over their head.”
But in the fall of 2017, his life started falling apart. His wife, who struggled with drug addiction, left in November. His arthritis, exacerbated by years of manual labor and heavy lifting, and his gout got worse. He missed work. He fell behind on rent. In June, he lost his job and was evicted from his home in South Milwaukee.
Devastated, Rodriguez focused on taking care of his children. He borrowed money, cashed in his 401(k) savings, couch surfed and stayed at a low-rent hotel near South 27th Street and West National Avenue. By mid-August, the SUV was all he had left.
Although Hope House generally provides short-term shelter, the Rodriguez family was able to stay there through January. The goal is to move into private housing, with rent subsidies for up to a year.
“When they told me I would get my own place through their help, I wanted to cry,” Rodriguez says.
He is also thankful for Hope House’s “wraparound” services, from money management to educational, medical and job support. He’s getting back on his feet, one step at a time. “I just want to make sure my children have a roof over their head,” he says. “And I want to go to work.”
Rodriquez did not hesitate to include his children in the portrait for Milwaukee Magazine.
“Maybe it will show people not to give up,” he says. “Just because you’re down once, doesn’t mean you can’t go back up. That’s life. Ups and downs.”
Guaranteed Rent, No Guaranteed Home
Anna Scott, 25, is an African-American, transgender woman who has been couch surfing since last April. Even she isn’t sure of the relationship between those aspects of her identity and the fact that she’s homeless.
“I never know how to discern whether it is legitimate discrimination – of being black, or being trans, or being female, because they don’t always know I’m trans,” Scott notes. “Or maybe the person was having a shitty day.”
What Scott does know is that homelessness doesn’t always mean that you’re dirt-poor, or that you don’t have a job, or that you’re an addict. Before she became homeless, Scott held some of these same stereotypes. “I thought, ‘How could anybody become homeless?’” she says. “‘How dumb could you be?’”
“My form of homelessness is not just solely about not having money.”
Scott began hormone treatments about two years ago, and her transgender status has strained relations with family and friends. She is building new networks and is thankful for agencies serving the LGBTQ community. She mentions in particular the informal group Sisters Helping Each other Battle Adversity (SHEBA), an outgrowth of the Diverse & Resilient agency.
Even with support, however, it’s difficult.
Scott has been accepted into a rent-subsidy program under which a social service agency guarantees full rent payments for a year. When interviewed in early January, she had spent the night at a low-rent hotel on the edge of Downtown, planning to sign a lease that afternoon.
When Scott went to sign, she was told the apartment “was being painted” and to check back in a few days. The lease ultimately fell through – the seventh time in recent months, despite the legal guarantees the rent would be paid.
Life by the North Avenue Bridge
On Nov. 1, 2017, after 18 years on the streets, John Kowalski decided it was time to come in. “I was getting too old to be outside,” he says. Besides, winter was coming. “I was tired of being cold.”
The decision took awhile, but once made, Kowalski knew where to go: Guest House, an agency providing both shelter and the services needed to build a new life. Almost a year later, in September 2018, he moved into an apartment with his brother in the Brady Street area.
At the age of 58, Kowalski has found contentment and purpose. He meditates and takes time to enjoy his morning coffee. He volunteers at Guest House, preparing and serving lunches and in the summer working in its gardens. “I’m finding myself again,” he says.
The oldest of four children, Kowalski dropped out of high school after ninth grade. He started a family while still young and began drinking heavily. He also had mental health problems. By the year 2000, his life’s downward spiral had left him homeless.
“I was tired of being cold.”
Kowalski reduced life to basics: alcohol, food and shelter, which consisted primarily of tarps, tents and cast-off sleeping bags. He took part-time menial jobs to earn cash, and is proud that he never panhandled. He walked everywhere, learned the finer points of dumpster diving, and took advantage of various meal and clothing programs. Over time, he became an expert in urban wilderness survival, with two rules above all: Stay warm and dry.
A few years before coming in from the cold, Kowalski had made another life-changing decision. After some medical scares, he decided to get sober. At the time, he was in his fifth year living in a tent hidden amid thick brush off the eastern bank of the Milwaukee River, near the North Avenue Bridge. “I could hear the river at night,” he says. “It was peaceful. That’s what I liked the most.” A coyote walked by once and they just looked at each other. He occasionally crossed paths with deer. He adopted a feral cat.
Now, Kowalski has reconnected with his children and grandchildren, and is thankful to Guest House and its staff for all they have done. And he is not ashamed of his past.
When he greets you, his handshake is firm, his voice is steady, and he looks directly at you with eyes so blue that they can take your breath away.
“I lived a rough life in a big city, and I’m still here,” he says. “Lots of people don’t make it.”
An Abusive Home, Then None
Natalie Hayden thought she had defied the odds. An African-American growing up in a city infamous for racism, segregation and poverty, she graduated from college, married and was raising her daughter in a two-parent family. On the surface, life seemed good.
But there was a darker reality. Hayden was a victim of domestic abuse.
Hayden, 37, tried at least seven times to leave her husband, once for several months. But being a single parent was hard. Besides, she loved her husband and he always seemed sincere about reconciling. Then there was the mental trap, the belief that if she tried harder, things might work.
That changed in late February 2017. Hayden came home to find her husband ransacking the living room, accusing her of stealing financial documents. “He went from 0 to 10 in no time, pushing me against the wall, pictures falling down,” Hayden recalls. “I was terrified for my life.”
Pinned to the ground, Hayden bit her husband to get him off, so hard she chipped a tooth. She escaped and went to the police. That night, with nowhere to go, she turned to Sojourner Family Peace Center, which has a 54-bed shelter.
Hayden and her daughter stayed at Sojourner for eight life-changing months. “You think you are merely seeking shelter, but I left being healed on so many levels,” she says. In particular, “the sense of community became very important.”
Hayden is perhaps most proud of her volunteer work at Sojourner, especially with its Voices Advisory Committee. As an outgrowth of that committee, she co-hosts a podcast for victims of domestic violence, “ExPOSED with LaVerne and Natalie,” that seeks to end abuse by doing it “one conversation at a time.”
Hayden also has a message for the broader public: Look beyond the stereotypes of what domestic abuse and homelessness seem to be. “It can happen to anyone, whether they are from Riverwest, Brookfield or Oconomowoc,” she cautions. “It’s one step, one bad decision away.”
“You think you are merely seeking shelter, but I left being healed on so many levels.”