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Homelessness has many difficult facets

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – It can sometimes be easy to forget homelessness is a serious issue in Greater Green Bay.

“You won’t see the homeless on Washington Street like you would on Michigan Avenue,” said St. John’s Homeless Shelter Executive Director Alexia Wood.

But for every visible homeless person, Wood said there is another one unseen, because for every individual or family that leaves a shelter, another one takes that place.

“Many think that because individuals can get into shelters that there isn’t a problem,” Wood said. “(But) homelessness is a much larger issue than just finding a place to sleep for the night.”

The homeless population in the community is often looked at with a skewed perspective – seen as the outcome of laziness or “choosing the bottle,” Wood said.

She said the area’s homeless population is left to think the situation they are in is entirely their fault and they don’t deserve help.

Julie Aderhold, executive director of The Ecumenical Partnership for Housing (EPH), recognizes the same bias.

“It’s not just a matter of trying harder or working harder,” Aderhold said.

EPH works with families with children experiencing homelessness through transitional housing, long-term supportive housing and a prevention program.

“Some of the lack of understanding in this area is that most people don’t see homeless individuals or families in our community (Greater Green Bay),” Aderhold said. “Families with children and individuals may be living on the street, in a car, couch-surfing/doubled up, homeless who stay with family and/or friends for brief periods of time when they have nowhere else to live and may move around, often not knowing where they will stay the next night or week or in shelters.”

St. John’s, a last resort homeless shelter for adult men and women in downtown Green Bay, serves hundreds of clients every year.

Wood said the hundreds served is troublesome, but one of the most alarming realities for her is one in five of those clients are young adults between the ages of 18 and 24.

“We have kids at 18 years old showing up at the last resort shelter,” Wood said. “Where were they before they came to us, the shelter of last resort? They just didn’t wake up at 18 and become homeless. And where will they be when they are in their 30s or 40s?”

Wood and Aderhold agree homelessness is a multi-faceted problem with countless causes, struggles, barriers and obstacles.

Childhood trauma/mental health issues

When Wood began her work with the shelter nearly eight years ago, the recession and the effects of the economy could often be blamed as the reason for the majority of homeless individuals.

Today she said it’s not that cut and dry.

The effects of childhood trauma and mental health issues are indirectly or directly contributing to, or leading to homelessness at an alarming rate.

Social isolation and loneliness are two of the many issues faced by people experiencing homelessness in Brown County and the rest of Wisconsin. Scott Eastman Photo

She said the prevalence of these issues in the homeless population is extraordinarily high.

Often they are experiencing or have experienced childhood physical and/or sexual abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse and domestic violence, among other things.

“I don’t think we as a society do a good enough job of taking care of our children,” Wood said.

House of Hope Director Shannon Wienandt said the lack of a high school diploma or its equivalent, being pregnant or parenting at a young age, involvement in foster care or the juvenile justice system are also linked to a higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness.

House of Hope provides safe and stable temporary shelter to homeless pregnant or parenting young adults and their children.

“Youth homelessness is not a choice,” Wood said.

Coupled with those past experiences, homelessness can cause even further trauma.

“The trauma associated with this is also not realized or understood by most people who have not experienced homelessness,” Aderhold said.

Shift from situational poverty to generational

A significant change EPH has seen with families over the last five to 10 years is a shift from situational poverty to generational poverty.

About 80 percent of families EHP serves today experience generational poverty.

Aderhold said the percentage has essentially flipped from five years ago.

“When we began in 1992, all our families would have been considered coming from situational poverty – caused by a situation (i.e. loss of job, death in family),” Aderhold said. “This results in maybe just a couple of barriers to returning to self-sufficiency.”

Aderhold said generational, or chronic poverty, is much more difficult.

“This refers to a family in which the parents have grown up in poverty,” Aderhold said. “There isn’t a frame of reference for what it’s like to be self-sufficient. Families who experience chronic or generational homelessness have a more difficult path – low self-identity, difficult time trusting, extended-family resistance and/or limited to no support system and being unfamiliar with middle class norms.”

House of Hope is also seeing the effects of generational poverty.

Of the people served by House of Hope last year, 26 percent were in the foster care system when they were children.

“The young parents who access House of Hope’s services are at a crucial age where this support can help them turn their lives around and live independently,” Wienandt said. “Not only are they parenting children who are experiencing homelessness during the most important developmental stage of their lives, these young parents are also in the midst of their own adolescence, which is the second most critical stage of human development.”

Wienandt said without targeted intervention, youth currently experiencing homelessness will become chronically homeless adults.

Lack of affordable housing

Aderhold said families face multiple barriers when trying to keep their heads above water.

Referencing the United Way ALICE report ( Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed – households that earn more than the federal poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living), Aderhold said a family of four in Brown County would need to make a combined hourly wage of $31.90 to meet the bare minimum to live today.

“It’s difficult to pay for basics like rent, food, etc. with minimum wage or even $12 to $15 per hour jobs,” Aderhold said.

She said affordable housing is a major and often an impossible barrier for many families.

Aderhold said the National Low-Income Housing Coalition reported Brown County has a deficiency of more than 8,000 affordable and available homes for people who earn 50 percent or less of the area’s median income.

“There is a gap in affordable housing stock in Brown County,” Aderhold said. “We have an opportunity for growth in that area, which could potentially help create population level change.”

Aderhold, Wood and Wienandt agree homelessness and poverty is a complex issue which requires system navigation and collaborative partnerships on numerous levels.

This includes reaching out for advice and guidance from individuals who have experienced poverty and homelessness.

Advocates for the homeless

Mike Parins, 75, is no stranger to homeless shelters.

After spending much of his teenage and young adult life homeless, he is now the one extending a hand of hope to those needing a place to stay.

“There was really no place for me to go when I was on the street,” Parins said. “Depending on the weather and circumstances, I just found whatever I could. Many times I would just find a place with someone I met, or hung out with others in the same situation.”

Parins, now a retired business owner, parent and grandparent, said his experiences with homelessness and addiction shaped him into the person he is today and led him to St. John’s as a volunteer.

It’s been several years since Parins lived on the streets.

He said things have changed since he was homeless.

Mike Parins, 75, was homeless for part of his life, but was able to obtain a place to stay, and eventually started a business. Now he is an advocate for St. John’s Homeless Shelter. Parins poses with a sign that was used as part of the See Me campaign the shelter released this summer. Submitted Photo

“The problem today seems so much worse – many more people with nowhere to go,” Parins said. “It seems like so many of the homeless today have other problems – physical, mental, financial, addictions or just got into a bad place.”

As a volunteer, Parins hopes sharing his experiences will help others know they are not alone and there is hope.

“I now think of all the crap in my past as a compost pile that I can use to help others to place new growth in their life,” Parins said. “I feel an interconnectedness with people at St. John’s and feel that I can create positive change for others. I believe that sharing my pain and success can help teach change.”

Parins said St. John’s is not just a place where people can be safe, have a place to sleep, get fed and cleaned up, but also a place of connection.

“It’s a place to meet one another, share their hardships and successes and get support from staff and one another,” Parins said.

St. John’s launched a campaign earlier this year called See Me, an initiative aimed at raising awareness about people experiencing homeslessness or at-risk for homelessness in Greater Green Bay.

“It is important to share the See Me campaign with the community, because homelessness is a community issue that requires a community solution,” said Alexa Priddy, director of Community Engagement at St. John’s Homeless Shelter.

Eight images were installed on the sidewalks throughout the City of Green Bay – each telling the story of someone served by one of St. John’s programs.

“When you read the sidewalk graphics, you connect to each person,” Priddy said. “You realize we all share more commonalities than we do differences. The guests that come to St. John’s are so much more than a singular identity of homeless.”

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