SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
Joshua Curler and Darnell Hudson had steady paychecks and places to live, but after the HVAC firm they worked for shuttered their doors, both men were unable find other employment and could no longer afford basic living expenses. Sitting on separate cots in the toasty room at the Capuchin Community Services’ St. Ben’s Community Meal Warming Center, 924 W. State St., on Tuesday, Jan. 29, both were grateful to get out of the frigid air.
“We are hoboing it for a while so we can look for work and housing,” said Hudson. The two men are part of a group of four that are looking out for each other while they are homeless.
With last week’s temperatures hovering around minus-20 degrees and wind chills dropping to minus-50 degrees, the four men found a warm place to rest their heads and get a hot meal, thanks to St. Ben’s opening their doors during the extreme cold. It was after seeing the weather report Sunday, Jan. 27, that Br. Rob Roemer, OFM Cap, executive director of Capuchin Community Services decided to keep the shelter open 24 hours a day from Jan. 29 through Feb. 1 during the Polar Vortex.
According to Br. Roemer, the center averaged 103 guests per night last week, up from an average of 60-70 per night in the winter months.
“We also served three meals a day, which is up from the normal one meal per day,” he said. “We normally serve 180-300 guests each day in the winter; a good number of meal guests have a place to live, but not enough food.”
Normal hours of operation for the center are from 1 to 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Fridays. When the temperatures dip below 20 degrees, the center opens as a warming room from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., said Br. Roemer. Last week, during the extended hours of operation, the cots were set up in the evening and guests were free to stay in the space all day.
“The guests mostly read, watched TV, used the internet, played cards or games and slept,” he said. “Some of the guests were very helpful in serving or cleaning up for our two extra meals.”
With the added number of guests expected last week, the center put out a request to the community for extra cots and food. The response far exceeded their expectations and because they received much more food than needed, they were able to pass the excess onto their House of Peace Food Pantry.
The Capuchin Community Service’s Warming Center is one of eight to help accommodate the more than 900 homeless in the city of Milwaukee. During the day, some guests keep warm at the public libraries, restaurants, hospital lobbies or daytime shelters, such as Repairers of the Breach. Without help, guests, such as Jack, a homeless full-time student at UWM, would be forced to sleep in various spaces around campus.
“Many of the guests tell me they would be on the streets just walking or crashing in a bus stop or park bench. A man named Alan told me has a place to live, but it has no heat. Eunice is in her late 70s and is walking the streets. Several told me they stayed with a family member, but were kicked out,” said Br. Roemer. “Unfortunately, there are some homeless who will not come indoors no matter how bad it gets. Some deal with mental illness and paranoia. They believe it is dangerous to be around others. There is a group called Street Angels that go under the bridges and in the woods to check on people, invite them in and make sure they are safe. They have brought numerous people into our center each night last week, but they share with me that some will simply refuse.”
Last week, Gilberto Velazquez visited more than usual, and the center’s hot showers were especially appealing.
“Gilberto told me he came to St. Ben’s Community Meal for various services all week,” said Jim Van Hoven, development administrator. “He shared that he could shower at home if not here. I asked, ‘why here, then?’ Gilberto said the water at home is only cold. I asked him if he had heat at home, but he said no, that’s why he’s sleeping in the warming center with his brother, Damien. Gilberto is unemployed and eats dinner at St. Ben’s every evening.”
In addition to St. Ben’s extended hours, Repairers of the Breach opened its doors around the clock from Jan. 29-31 to accommodate the homeless needing a respite from the cold. The center, located at 14th and Vliet, is typically open from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and is known as Greater Milwaukee’s only daytime refuge and resource for homeless adults.
Holy Assumption Parish located at 1525 S. 71st St., West Allis, also opened its doors last week to anyone needing a warm place stay.
Fr. David Zampino, pastor of Holy Assumption, wanted the community to know that the church was a safe space for all to stay, no matter if they were Catholic or not. He offered hot coffee and donuts to guests.
“We had people coming in and out all day,” he said. “We had one gentleman who spent the night for two nights. He was extremely respectful to the church; all he wanted to do was to wrap up in a blanket and have some coffee and bakery.”
So many volunteers stepped up to provide food, blankets and coats that Fr. Zampino said he could not possibly congratulate them all for their generous efforts.
“We had one person bring a pot of hot mac and cheese. Another person brought a Crock Pot of homemade stew and there was enough bakery to open our own bakery,” he said, joking. “The general spirit was extremely positive. I had one woman and her son come in, just to donate an enormous bundle of blankets and children’s coats. I am not positive, but I think we were the only safe space open in West Allis.”
The experience offered Fr. Zampino a glimpse into the struggles and needs of the homeless and those trying to survive in the cold with no place to turn. The heating system in his parish office was malfunctioning and since he stayed at the parish during the cold stretch, he had to sleep in his buttoned-up overcoat.
“But I realized that I was indoors, out of the wind, in a safe space and I had a warm overcoat,” he said. “There are many people that don’t have that luxury. I would do this again in a red-hot minute. But I don’t want the credit. The credit belongs to the folks; the faithful of the parish. They were the ones who stepped up. All I did was keep the doors open and make the coffee. They were the ones who stepped up with the donations and the ones that should be praised.”