Mary Lowe stepped to the pulpit at St. Benedict the Moor Parish, Milwaukee, to speak about Heika Spielbauer, who passed away last year, as part of Memorial Service for the Homeless on April 17.
“It was easy for me and others to take her advice, to ask her for guidance,” Lowe said, reading from a paper she brought with her. She talked about Spielbaur’s passion for others while stumbling over her words and then stopped.
“I know I’m supposed to read this paper, but I can’t do it. I have to tell you from my heart what I know about the three years I had (known) her,” Lowe said. “I can stand here today and say Heika would be proud of me being three years sober.”
Lowe told a story about how Spielbauer kept her from moving out of her house and reminding her of the hard work Lowe had done to get herself off the streets and away from drugs.
Spielbauer, 33, deceased homeless and those who worked in the homeless community were honored at the service with those willing to speak on their behalf. The church was almost filled with individuals who had some connection to that portion of the population.
The memorial service started in 1989, occurring every other year. In 2004 it became an annual event.
Bill Mullooly, a social worker at St. Ben’s Clinic and member of St. Jude the Apostle Parish, Wauwatosa, said the turnout was one of the best in recent years. He added that Lowe’s memorial of Spielbauer, a former colleague of his at St. Ben’s, was excellent.
“I was happy (Lowe) just threw the thing aside and spoke from the heart,” Mullooly said. “Death really equalizes things.”
Mullooly, having worked on the homeless issue at St. Ben’s for 16 years, said the core issue surrounding homelessness in Milwaukee is affordable housing.
“Back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, there used to be this saying, ‘A week’s worth of work would equal a month’s worth of rent,’” Mullooly said, adding it’s not like that today. “Now, when it’s 50, 60, 70 percent of your pay check just on housing, it’s tough. There’s not a lot of room for error.”
Mullooly said the memorial service tries to honor some those who died without friends and family at their side.
“For those individuals, it’s just we really want to make a point of remembering them. They don’t go unnoticed,” Mullooly said.
As Steve and Jeanne Lowry read the names of those who had died this past year, members of the congregation lit candles on an altar for each of them.
Jeanne has worked with the group Community Advocates in the Homeless Outreach Nursing Center since 1989.
“I don’t think it’s changed much,” she said about the homeless issue in Milwaukee. “The job situation is as bleak as ever, maybe bleaker.”
Her husband, Steve, a Salvation Army worker from 1998-2006 who is retired, said it’s been a “privilege” to serve the poor.
“You really learn a lot about human nature,” he said. “When you see people who are really just like us, who get down and out for any reasons, that could happen to anyone.”
For William Taylor, being down and out was all too familiar.
“Being homeless, that is your lowest point,” Taylor said. “It’s very unsafe in the homeless community… I mean muggings and beatings.”
Taylor was homeless on-and-off from 1997-2011 until he moved into his current apartment on Wells Street.
“I had a drug and alcohol addiction; they just diagnosed me now. I suffer from anxiety attacks and depression,” he said. “I’ve slept outside for months at a time.”
Taylor came to pay his respects to several people, including Joel Frank, one of his teachers at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
“He was like my educational mentor,” Taylor said. He added after he left MATC, Frank convinced him to come back. “He was just a good advisor. I miss Joel a lot.”
Taylor said he also knew Spielbauer the entire time he was struggling.
“She got me off the streets first, got me into some decent housing and it was affordable,” he said.
Though he’s off the streets and said he regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Taylor acknowledged the type of hold those demons had on him.
“The hardest thing is, for a homeless person, is to stay sober,” he said. “I got a great support network now that I can talk to if I get the cravings for alcohol.”
Although many people attending differed as to whether the homeless issue had improved or not, Taylor expressed a high level of optimism for others that are in the situation in which he had been.
“(There are) so much that a person can reach for these days,” he said, naming organizations like Guest House, Rescue Mission and Hope House. “(There are) many, many, many agencies that you can go to and find shelter. You just got to stay sober and follow through with it.”
When the event ended around 3:30 p.m. some people stuck around to talk, catch up and have cookies and juice. At the same time, outside St. Benedict the Moor Church people were forming a line leading to the side door, the entrance of the kitchen, for St. Ben’s Community Meal program at 5:15p.m. According to St. Ben’s website most of the people they feed are homeless or don’t have enough money to consistently feed themselves.