It’s obvious to the woman eating lunch at a popular fast food restaurant near State 151 in Beaver Dam that the three men huddled outside are homeless.

In fact, one planted a homemade sign in a snow bank advertising his plight and asking for help from passersby.Dodge County’s only approved temporary homeless shelter for women, children and fathers is located in the convent of the former St. Michael Catholic Church, Beaver Dam. Members of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Beaver Dam, are leading the effort to establish a men’s homeless shelter for the area. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)

“It so sad for the homeless men here in Beaver Dam,” said the woman, who agreed to the use only of her first name, Barbra.

Barbra, 52, herself is homeless and resides in Dodge County’s only approved temporary homeless shelter – a 10-bed facility for women, children and fathers in the convent of the former St. Michael Catholic Church in Beaver Dam.

“We are lucky. We have a roof over our heads; we have heat and a stove to cook on. Can you imagine living on the street like those men?” said Barbra.

But save for precious few vouchers for limited rooms in an unnamed Beaver Dam motel, no such temporary shelter exists for single men.

A community coalition of public, private and religious groups from this city of 17,000, including leaders from St. Katharine Drexel Parish, are working to assure not only emergency shelter for single, homeless men, but direction to long-term housing and other life resources.

“I want to see a shelter in Beaver Dam be a place where men who don’t have a place to live can come in, get warm and feel accepted by the community as a first step toward establishing a better life for themselves,” said Diane

Georgetta, a coalition participant and member of St. Katharine Drexel Parish. “Homelessness is a very complex issue we don’t quite understand, but at the end of the day we are all children of God. We all deserve to have a place to live and be a part of a community.”

Jim Hafenstein, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society conference in Beaver Dam, said the organization sees the need for a homeless shelter through the number of requests it gets for help and for vouchers to place homeless men in area motels.

“Sometimes we’ll ask them to go and sleep in the police station lobby,” he said.

Hafenstein said he personally gave one homeless man a ride to the nearest men’s shelter in Fond du Lac, a 20-mile drive.

Although the opening of a new thrift store has kept the local St. Vincent de Paul Society conference from temporarily participating in the shelter project, “we are very supportive of the project,” Hafenstein said.

A January 2013 point-in-time count by homeless advocates found about 36 homeless people in Dodge County. An updated point-in-time count, where the homeless are actively sought, taken Jan. 29, found 10 homeless people who were sheltered – no one camped out in an unsheltered location – likely because people were more willing to take in others they knew because of the extremely frigid temperatures that week, according to Susan Tucker, supervisor for the homeless intervention and prevention unit of the Wisconsin Dells-based Central Wisconsin Action Council.

But homeless people, such as Barbra, come from other communities. She came to Beaver Dam from Madison where a friend referred her to New Beginnings, a private, non-profit organization that operates the shelter at the former St. Michael convent.

Diane Mayr, house manager of the New Beginnings shelter, said she recently received calls from as far away as Minnesota and Indiana from homeless men who have heard of possible shelter in Beaver Dam.

New Beginnings has offered, in partnership with CWCAC, its fiscal agent, to pay up to $75,000 for a house deemed appropriate for a men’s temporary homeless shelter.

Recent hopes of buying a duplex were dashed when an inspection of the home revealed the need for extensive and expensive repairs.

So it was back to the drawing board for shelter proponents, including several Beaver Dam churches, police and city officials, the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul Society, other community non-profits and the Community Action Council, said Fr. Michael Erwin, pastor at St. Katharine Drexel and a leader in community efforts to establish a shelter.

He said they’re still building the coalition itself, to ensure it’s sustainable over the long run, while simultaneously finding volunteers and looking for a space.

Fr. Erwin said plans call for establishing a men’s shelter with six to eight beds, offering some degree of counseling for residents with volunteers from St. Katharine Drexel and other churches in Beaver Dam providing support for things like cooking and serving meals.

He said the parish has investigated establishing a temporary shelter for men at the church, “but it didn’t seem practical for a couple reasons.”

“The fire department is wary of using buildings not designed for that (homeless shelter) purpose,” Fr. Erwin said, adding the church would have little control over the size of the program based on future demand.

Still, Fr. Erwin said the project fits in well with the mission of the church.

“We are cooperating with the general plan of Jesus Christ, which is to proclaim caring for people during their difficult hours,” Fr. Erwin said. “There are a lot of parish members eager to participate in this mission.”

Carol Ryan, treasurer of New Beginnings and a member of St. Katharine Drexel, said Fr. Erwin has contributed needed leadership to the project.

“Since Fr. Mike joined the group there seems to be a bigger push for the shelter,” Ryan said. “He just has the touch. He doesn’t think things are impossible. He just keeps going.”

Ryan said she remains optimistic a facility will be found for a shelter “but we do need some prayers, too.”
Georgetta, whose first contact with a homeless person occurred about two years ago outside the state capitol in Madison where she works as a budget analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said she has long-held a passion to help the homeless.

“There are two things that have always bothered me. One is that some people in this world don’t have enough food. The other is many people don’t have a home,” she said.

Serving on the committee to establish a men’s shelter complements her Catholic beliefs, Georgetta said.

“I’ve been a Catholic all my life, but it wasn’t until about three years ago that I had a spiritual awakening and became a real believer,” she said. “Now that I know Jesus, I know he would not want (homelessness) to be happening. He would not want men out there on their own not being a part of our community. To me, working on this project is trying to fulfill something Jesus wants me to do.”

“If you think about it, Jesus was homeless. He was a nomad who traveled around the country depending on others for food and shelter. I thought to myself, ‘Wow. Jesus didn’t have a place to live,’” Georgetta said.

She said it was disappointing to hear the proposed duplex did not work out, “but we are finding that when one door closes another opens and it’s always better.”