Monday, March 25, 2019

Interview on "Hidden Homelessness" —WUWM's Lake Effect

I had the pleasure of being on WUWM's "Lake Effect" broadcast on Friday March 15, talking about my recent article in Milwaukee Magazine on the city's crisis of "hidden homelessness." I had the pleasure of being on Lake Effect with Natalie Hayden, one of the people profiled in the article.

Click here to hear the show.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Out from the Shadows

Meet five people willing to share the stories of their homelessness – from the streets to the shelters to the transient world of couch surfing.

By Barbara Miner
Originally published in the March 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 


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.

“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.

Bria Burris

When the Past Blocks the Future

Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki
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.”

When interviewed in late December, Burris (whose legal first name is Tequila) was asked what she might want to say to Milwaukee Magazine readers. She said she wanted to think about it. Two weeks later, she sent an email.

“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.

“But it’s like this. Everything in my past says that I will fail and then my children, in turn, will fail. … So everything that I do now is to level the playing field, to give to my children a fair shot by any means.”

Burris attends Milwaukee Area Technical College and is working toward a degree in human services. She credits the MATC teachers’ union for helping her, especially with her biggest problem: a felony drug conviction.

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.”

Ferdinand Rodriguez

A Father, Three Kids and a Truck

Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki
Aug. 14 was a balmy summer evening, a magical time in Milwaukee. But not for Ferdinand Rodriguez and his three children. They were homeless.

For a second night they would sleep in his 1997 Mercury Mountaineer parked near Kosciuszko Park in the shadow of the Basilica of St. Josaphat.

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.

A welder by trade, the 47-year-old Rodriguez moved to Milwaukee in 2009 after the company he worked for in Chicago shut down. He found a job and all went reasonably well for him and his children.

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.”

Anna Scott

Guaranteed Rent, No Guaranteed Home

Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki
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?’”

Scott has since learned that when it comes to low- and moderate-income housing in Milwaukee, it’s a landlord’s world. “My form of homelessness is not just solely about not having money,” Scott says. Her paid work is primarily through the gig economy, without the steady and plump W-2 statements that landlords love. The fact that her driver’s license has her male birth name complicates matters. And landlords don’t like complications.

Scott entered the world of couch surfing after an eviction she believes was partly about her transgender status and partly about falling behind in rent after a roommate didn’t pay her share. Scott admits she “dropped the ball” by not checking her mail and thus receiving the eviction notice before it was too late to do much. And while she can’t prove this, she is also convinced that the landlord rejected her attempts to make good on the back rent because she is a transgender woman.

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 & Resilientagency.

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.

John Kowalski

Life by the North Avenue Bridge

Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki
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.

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.”

Natalie Hayden
An Abusive Home, Then None

Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki
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.”

With the help of Sojourner, Hayden got a job at the Milwaukee Job Corpsas a counselorfor at-risk youth and found an apartment. She also learned the importance of a holistic approach to overcoming trauma. Food and fitness became her main coping mechanisms, leading to side jobs as a wellness coach and personal chef. (Tuscan salmon with mushroom risotto is one of her favorite dishes.)

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,” thatseeks 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.”

Click here for the Milwaukee Magazine article.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

To treat trauma, stop traumatizing people: Close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility

— This blog is based on an opinion in in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Crossroads section on Sunday July 15, 2018.

Mark Rice admits he has made mistakes in life — the most serious when he was a teenager. Convicted of burglary, he spent two years in prison and was released on 12 years’ probation.

Rice, now 39 and with a history of mental illness, has worked hard to get his life back on track. Today is he in the doctoral program in urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

His main focus is ending mass incarceration, in particular, closing the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility. It is an issue he knows well. In 2007, he was imprisoned for six months at the downtown facility following a disorderly conduct charge that was later dropped. 

Middle-class whites whose interactions with the courts center on speeding tickets might ask, “How can you be sent to prison when you were not convicted of a crime?” 

People familiar with the nightmare of mass incarceration will understand. Rice was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his probation, which state you cannot get arrested. It made no difference that the disorderly conduct case was dismissed.

“For me, the most difficult part was being incarcerated again without being convicted of anything, and that created a lot of anger in me,” Rice says. “It took me a while to calm down.” 

CLOSEmsdf activists at the May Day march in Waukesha.
Rice challenged his return to prison and after six months he got a hearing before a judge, who released him from jail and from probation. His story has a “happy ending” — happy, that is, if you ignore that he lost his job, his housing, his health insurance, and his full-tuition UWM scholarship.

At the same time, Rice found a passionate calling. In addition to his studies, he now works with JustLeadershipUSA, which is dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. In Milwaukee, the group is focusing on the campaign to close the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF).

The state-run MSDF was built in 2001, primarily to imprison people on parole/probation violations. It is located just off 10th and State, overlooking the freeway, and was designed as a “building within a building.” Passers-by can be forgiven if they mistake the facility as just another drab-looking office tower. 

But the medium-security MSDF has garnered a national reputation as an inhumane facility on par with New York City’s infamous Rikers Island. 

There is no direct sunlight for people incarcerated at the MSDF, no fresh air, poor ventilation, no outdoor exercise, and no in-person visits from family or friends. Those incarcerated are kept in their cells for 20 hours a day or more, and overcrowding is rampant. Only a few small sections are air-conditioned. 

For those working to shut down the prison — a year-old campaign best known by the hashtag #CloseMSDF — the facility is a brutal, merciless solution to a problem that, under more enlightened policies, wouldn’t exist. 

Imprisoned for 'crimeless crimes'
Most of those detained at the MSDF are there because of “revocation” — a seemingly benign term that, in practice, means people can be sent back to prison even if they have not committed a new crime but have merely violated one of the “Rules of Supervision” for people on parole, probation or extended supervision. 

It’s doubtful that even George Orwell could have come up with the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that masks the realities of the state Department of Corrections’ (DOC) “Rules of Supervision.”  

The first of the almost 30 rules sets the tone: “Avoid all conduct which is in violation of federal or state statute, municipal or country ordinances, tribal law or which is not in the best interest of the public welfare or your rehabilitation” (emphasis added).

Other rules are equally broad and subject to capricious enforcement. For instance, your home, computer or cell phone can be searched at any time. You have to inform your probation/parole agent of your whereabouts or activities “as he/she directs.” You need written approval before buying, selling or even operating a motor vehicle. You need permission to travel out of state. You may not possess or consume any alcohol or have any contact with a drug user, even if it may be a brother or uncle, mother or father.

Due to the state’s emphasis on imprisoning people for “crimeless crimes,” the MSDF suffers from chronic overcrowding and averaged 1,077 incarcerated people a day last year. The annual operating budget was almost $40 million. About 65% of those at the facility are African American, and 62% have mental health problems. 

When Rice was at MSDF, he was the third person in a cell originally designed for one person. He slept on the floor, his head a few feet from the toilet. Diagnosed as a person with paranoid schizophrenia, he was in a special unit for people with mental health problems. The overcrowding, poor conditions and inadequate medical services only exacerbated the trauma of incarcerated people. Fights were common.

According to #CloseMSDF, 17 people have died while at the facility. This January, the state paid $1 million to settle a case involving Jeremy Cunningham, who died at the MSDF in 2011 after a guard ignored cellmates who pressed an emergency alarm and said Cunningham was having a seizure. The guard said Cunningham was merely “snoring,” and hung up on the emergency call.

Alternatives to incarceration
“People often ask us, ‘What are you going to do with the people in MSDF if you close it down?’” Rice notes. “And our answer is, ‘People shouldn’t be in jail for crimeless rule violations. You are imprisoning people already struggling with poverty, mental health and addiction.’”

His time at MSDF, Rice says, “was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.” 

Launched a little over a year ago, #CLOSEmsdf has garnered support from religious and community groups and legislators, with most of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates supporting the facility’s closure. #CLOSEmsdf is calling for the money saved to be invested in community-based programs, in particular, job training and mental health services.

In 1990, Wisconsin imprisoned 7,332 people. Today the figure is about 23,500, a factor in the 2010 Census findings that Wisconsin locks up a higher percentage of African Americans than any other state. The “lock-em-up” mentality also means that the state now spends more tax dollars on corrections than on the University of Wisconsin System. 

Perhaps most devastating, policies of mass incarceration rip apart the lives of not only individuals but also families and communities.

There’s been a lot of talk in Milwaukee about addressing our city’s trauma crisis. But in addition to treating traumatized individuals, it’s imperative to promote policies that prevent trauma in the first place.

Shutting down the MSDF is a good place to start.

Note: The changes from the MJS opinion primarily reflect language preferred by those active in the struggle against mass incarceration — replacing words such as inmates and prisoners to people-centered language such as formerly incarcerated people or people with conviction records.