Traveling from the suburbs to downtown Milwaukee is pretty easy. If you’re coming from the west you can take I-94, get off at Sixth Street and you’re blocks from the Milwaukee Public Museum or great restaurants in the Third Ward. If you’re coming from the north or south you can take I-43, get off at Highland Avenue and you’re a few blocks from the Milwaukee Theatre and BMO Harris Bradley Center.
These freeways not only take you right to a popular entertainment destination but they also serve as walls to prevent people from seeing the plight of many Milwaukee residents by completely bypassing certain areas of the city.
Since 1994, the Capuchins at St. Benedict the Moor on Ninth and State streets, have educated high school and college students to the reality some people face each day.
They take students on an “Urban Plunge” in order to expose them to something they might not otherwise experience.
“When I know it’s successful is when (students) come back and say that they felt uncomfortable,” Capuchin Br. Rob Roemer said. “The attitude is that homeless people are scary or dangerous…. They find out they’re much like themselves.”
The Urban Plunge immersed the students into central city life over a 24-hour period starting on a Friday with a hot meal at St. Ben’s meal program.
They sleep over night in the church.
St Ben’s offers two options for an Urban Immersion experience. One is a three-hour experience aimed at upper elementary students. The other is an overnight experience intended for high school or college-age students.
To sign up:
The next day they were up at 7 a.m. on a 90-minute walking tour of areas around the city where homeless people sleep. Places like the benches at MacArthur Square and some of the side pockets along buildings on Wells Street and Wisconsin Avenue.
Throughout the day, they visit programs like Repairers of the Breach, a daytime homeless shelter that focuses on helping people get jobs and housing; Guest House, a homeless shelter for men that also focuses on jobs; Voces de La Frontera, which focuses on immigration and answer American history questions that are required for immigrants who wish to gain citizenship.
In first weekend of December, high school students and members of St. Jerome, Ocono-mowoc, took the plunge as part of their preparation for the sacrament of confirmation.
“It’s shocking to see how many people show up,” said Abigail Lema, 15. “I’ve never been to a homeless shelter before. This is my first time.”
Leman and some students sat at a table at St. Ben’s meal program with their meatballs, mashed potatoes and vegetables waiting for people to sit with them.
Others from the group chatted with other St. Ben’s guests. Brooke Little and Olivia Dew, also 15, talked about sports with a man named Bill.
“I’m a softball player,” Little said.
“Oh gee, fast pitch?” Bill asked.
“Yeah,” Little responded.
Bill had a stubby salt and pepper beard and was wearing a Harley-Davidson winter jacket and Green Bay Packers winter hat that looked like it had fallen in the mud a few times.
“She pitches,” Dew added.
Looking surprised, Bill asked her, “You got a good fastball?”
“Yeah,” Little said.
The softball talk continued for a while until the girls asked Bill about his sports experiences.
“Did you play sports?” Little asked.
“Football and so on, and racing,” he said.
“Racing?” Little asked.
Bill leaned in, taking a break from his food.
“Don’t tell anybody, but I was 14 years old and I had a paper route and my dad taught me how to drive,” Bill said.
Both girls were fully engaged in learning more about Bill and he entertained them with tales of driving without a license. It was their little secret conversation.
“You didn’t hear me say all that stuff,” he said. “I’ll get in trouble.” All three laugh.
As the girls left they said, “It was nice talking to you.”
“Same here,” Bill said back.
These are the moments that Br. Rob wants the students to experience.
“My hope is that they change their ideas a little bit,” Br. Rob said. “I want them to see life in a different way…. I want them to know that life is not easy and to have some compassion for people on the streets and not look down on them or laugh at them or judge them.”
St. Jerome youth director Colleen Valley has taken students on the Urban Plunge for several years.
“It’s only 25 miles from where they live,” Valley said. “It’s such a different existence from their little corner of the world.”
Valley said they also collect blankets, hats and coats and deliver them to those in need.
“It’s one thing to have them get the toiletries and the blankets, the coats and things, and collecting it,” she said. “Now they’re collecting it and bringing it down.”
Valley said some parents were hesitant to have their kids spend the night, but she assured them they would be safe.
One of those parents, Amy Councell, came as a chaperone.
“I honestly was little nervous,” she said. “But once I’m here I’m fine, because they’re no different from us.”
Br. Rob said parents are cautious about the Urban Plunge.
“I’ve had leaders come up to me and say, ‘I had hopes that (an Urban Plunge) was going to happen but all these parents said no it’s too dangerous,’” Br. Rob said.
“I’ve had a lot of people cancel because they can’t get the numbers. They cannot get people to sign up for it — either they’re too scared or their parents won’t let them.”
But not all parents have the same hesitations.
“I didn’t really know about this until my mom told me a week ago,” Esteban Covarrubias, a member of the St. Jerome group, said while sitting at a table at St. Ben’s. “She just told me, ‘You’re going.’ And I was like, ‘OK.’”
Councell said the experience is good for parents and children.
“It makes me more grateful for what I have but I also think it’s important for the child to see what could happen,” she said. “Why education is so important and why I have to budget our money.”
After seeing and eating with the regulars at St. Ben’s – some of them children – and sleeping in the same neighborhood, visiting local resources, the kids from St. Jerome went home to their warm beds in Oconomowoc.
Br. Rob hopes they went back with a greater understanding of poverty.
“I just don’t want them to say, ‘This is just normal life,’” he said.