GIFTS Men’s Shelter recently offered accommodations to a man who walked out of the woods along the Rock River and told staff he couldn’t stand one more night of sleeping under bare trees on the cold ground.
At the House of Mercy Homeless Center, a family of five with nowhere else to go just moved in, joining about 15 others at the shelter.
Those are just a few recent late-season guests at local homeless shelters who are seeking respite as blistering-cold winter weather looms and the coronavirus pandemic rages out of control.
For shelters that are the last port for the homeless to evade potentially deadly cold weather, this winter will only bring more complexities—and perhaps more uncertainty than ever before.
For one thing, shelter officials say they’re still operating under county health restrictions that reduce the number of homeless clients they can house.
GIFTS Director John Koesema said the shelter likely will scale back its occupancy even more to fit the Rock County Public Health Department’s new COVID-19 recommendation this week that businesses and public places—including nonprofit agencies—limit their occupancy to 25% capacity. The guidance means GIFTS could fill just 11 of the 42 beds at its shelter and recovery center on the city’s west side.
Officials say the county has yet to decide how it might manage emergency warming centers that operate during dangerous cold snaps. Meanwhile, some state unemployment benefits and a state moratorium on apartment evictions are set to expire in December, which could spell an influx of new shelter guests, officials said.
House of Mercy Manager Tammie King-Johnson said her shelter continues to operate under the county’s earlier, phase-two COVID-19 recovery guidelines that recommend public places limit occupancy to 50% capacity.
The House of Mercy is one of the few local shelters that cater to women and children who face homelessness or possible domestic abuse by a partner they’re trying to escape.
King-Johnson said the shelter is seeing a “slight reduction” in its normal waiting list for 30-day to 60-day accommodations.
Normally, the shelter has a waiting list of 100 clients at this time of year. That number has fallen to about 50 recently.
King-Johnson said that’s partly because a temporary moratorium on rental evictions has reduced some situational homelessness.
Still, a spike in unemployment and underemployment coupled with a shortfall of affordable housing have made rent even more unaffordable for an already vulnerable population.
King-Johnson said local social service agencies—some of which are members of a city homelessness task force—have been talking about how to use state funding earmarked for low-income rental assistance. That money can’t be used until the moratorium on evictions ends next month, she said.
Meanwhile, no one can predict what path the pandemic could take this winter. It’s not clear yet how much COVID-19 infection rates, which already have strained public and private health care systems, will worsen before a vaccine becomes available to the public.
Neither GIFTS nor House of Mercy has reported any COVID-19 illnesses since the start of the pandemic, the agencies’ officials said. Koesema said GIFTS requires clients to test negative for COVID-19 before they’re allowed in.
New clients are required to wear masks in the shelter for at least 14 days.
Also unclear is whether federal, state or local governments will try to enact more COVID-19 shutdowns and whether they will approve a new wave of stimulus for displaced workers—and to what extent that stimulus might reach communities’ most vulnerable residents.
Some families who are homeless are currently staying with extended family members. That might ease shelter caseloads in the short haul, King-Johnson said. But she said there’s a concern that people who are in and out of different homes might be more at risk for coronavirus infection.
For that and other reasons, House of Mercy, which is run by Mercyhealth, is considering expanding the limit on occupancy to beyond 60 days. That’s after the shelter extended the cap from 30 days to 60 to address a local housing shortage and gap in rent affordability, King-Johnson said.
The change could make wait times longer, although King-Johnson said the impact depends on many variables—not the least of which is how cold the weather might get.
“This all is totally unprecedented,” she said. “I really don’t think that any social service provider who works with the homeless population can predict how this winter or the next year is going to go. Nobody can predict that.”
Koesema took over the helm of GIFTS earlier this year in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. After running a metropolitan homeless shelter in Texas, the Chicago native will get his first taste of a typical Midwestern winter in years.
The GIFTS shelter offers temporary housing, job assistance and counseling to homeless men, who often can suffer from substance abuse disorders, mental illness and other health problems.
Koesema said for the safety of clients, GIFTS will comply as much as possible with county recommendations on occupancy, even if it means the shelter won’t be able to serve its typical client base of between 25 and 30 homeless men.
But he worries about clients like the man who he said came to GIFTS from a makeshift encampment in the woods.
That man has a modestly-paying job but no savings, Koesema said, and he has fought substance abuse problems in the past. The man’s motivation to rise from homelessness is that he wants to reconnect with his daughter.
Koesema worries because he’s not sure whether clients like that man will have immediate options on a subzero night when GIFTS is at capacity.
He said he’s been unable to learn from the county or private entities whether co-op warming centers will operate this winter.
And if they do, it’s not clear what limits they might have.
Koesema wonders whether other private entities might step up to offer more warming capacity if the county hits its limitations.
Rock County sheriff’s Sgt. Sheena Kohler, the county’s emergency management director, didn’t immediately respond to a Gazette inquiry on plans for warming centers.
Mary Penny-Fanning, who leads the Blackhawk Region’s United Way office in Janesville, said a county official told social service agencies earlier this week that the county still was discussing plans for warming centers.
In case GIFTS reaches its whittled-down, COVID-era capacity, Koesema said he’s got one ace in the hole—although it might work for only a day or two.
“We would probably find a, you know, get you a sleeping blanket and a cot and put you in our heated front lobby, and spend the night,” he said. “We’d make sure you have breakfast. Then the next day, we can hopefully find some more resources out there.”
The mother of a girl who drowned in the Rock River in June is asking for $500,000 in compensation from the city of Janesville.
Simone Harris filed a claim with the city, claiming the death was preventable and the city failed in its duty to protect residents from the river’s dangers.
Madison Billups, 9, died after being swept downriver from Angler’s Park near the Monterey Bridge, where she and her brother had been wading.
The claim submitted by Ronald Sklare of the Sklare Law Group states the city knew of previous drownings in the river and an incident in 2019, when a boy survived after being swept downriver from the floating pier at the ARISE Town Square in downtown Janesville.
“The dangerous current and unfettered access to the river by the residents of Janesville gives rise to a ministerial duty on the part of the Janesville City Council, Janesville Public Works and the parks’ manager to undertake control of river safety,” the claim states.
The parks manager should have placed signs warning of the danger or informed his superiors of the danger, the claim states.
The claim, dated Sept. 25, says the city also has failed to improve safety along the river since Madison died. This is not true. The city put up temporary warning signs at Angler’s Park during the summer.
The city installed permanent signs this fall at about 20 river access points, from Riverside Park downstream to the Afton boat launch, Parks Director Cullen Slapak said Thursday.
The signs warn of swift current or deep water or say children must be supervised near the water, Slapak said.
Slapak said the city also intends to install a throw-ring station in the vicinity of Angler’s Park soon.
The claim says the city reacted immediately “when a white child slipped into the river in 2019,” the claim states. Madison Billups was Black.
Harris’ attorney did not return a call seeking comment.
The city installed two throw-ring stations and buoys downstream of the floating pier where the 8-year-old boy went into the river in 2019.
“If these improvements had been made at the known access points of the river where all children play, Madison may have survived,” the claim states. “This is just one notable example of the lack of care and urgency that Janesville and its agents have for their residents.”
The claim is on the consent agenda for the Janesville City Council’s Monday night meeting. Assistant City Attorney Tim Wellnitz, after investigating and consulting with the city’s liability insurance company, recommends that the council deny the claim, according to a city memo.
“The city is not liable, and the claim should be denied,” Wellnitz wrote in the memo.
State law requires any claims against local governments to be submitted as claims before any lawsuit can be filed. Governments often reject such claims, which clears the way for lawsuits. The council could also decide to pay the claim or negotiate a settlement without going to court.
Wisconsin municipalities are legally immune from some lawsuits, but suits are allowed under a “known and compelling danger exemption,” arising from a state Supreme Court ruling, according to the claim.
The Rock River is such a known and compelling danger in Janesville, according to the claim.
Emily Peters and other students carefully planted 400 milkweeds at the UW-Whitewater Nature Preserve last spring.
They made sure they gave the young plants enough space to thrive so monarch butterflies, whose numbers have plummeted since the mid-1990s, can lay eggs on them.
“We focused on doing it right the first time,” Peters said of herself and other interns in the UW-Whitewater sustainability office.
Another student, Ashley Ann Roscoe, is revamping signs and trail markers in the preserve.
“We’re trying to get people out there and to educate them about the great land we have here,” Roscoe said.
She also has helped in the campus garden and has monitored the health of area waterways.
Both UW-Whitewater students are proud of their environmental work.
But they also are proud of sustainability and environmental efforts across campus.
“A lot is going on overall,” Peters said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education took notice.
The agency named UW-Whitewater a Green Ribbon School, one of only five colleges nationwide to get the designation this year.
The award recognizes campus efforts to improve the environment and the health and wellness of people and to offer environmental and sustainability education across many departments.
“The award is meant to honor people across campus,” said Wes Enterline, director of the university’s sustainability office.
Some efforts, including the planting of milkweed and other native perennials for pollinators, are easy to recognize.
Others to reduce waste, greenhouse gases, and water and energy use are less noticeable.
Enterline outlined a few of the efforts. They include:
“Students looking for careers in sustainability can look at Whitewater, often known as a business or education school,” Enterline said.
All students who pass through UW-Whitewater take classes that address social and environmental concerns, preparing them for issues in the future, he explained.
Enterline views sustainability as striving to meet the needs of the present without affecting the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
“This includes protecting and conserving natural resources, like clean air and water,” Enterline said. “It also means making sure we are being efficient with money and seeking a return on investment for new projects and programs.”
His office opens doors for student interns, who are involved in a variety of projects touching on climate, transportation, waste and recycling and environmental outreach. Some students take on independent studies looking at water use, energy consumption and green-building standards.
Students also have helped the university take part in recognition and certification programs, including the Green Ribbon School award.
Enterline’s goal is to get students involved in all campus sustainability projects.
More than a decade ago, Eric Compas put his students, who included Enterline, to work assessing greenhouse-gas emissions at the university.
Students also explored efforts to make the campus more sustainable.
With the support of the administration, one of the pivotal things that came out of their effort was the creation of a sustainability office.
In May 2008, shortly after graduating, Enterline became the first director.
“Wes graduated, and we rounded up some money to get him hired,” said Compas, a professor in the department of geography, geology and environmental science.
Along with hiring Enterline, the university started a council to talk about sustainability on campus and a faculty fellow to promote sustainability in the curriculum.
“We created something called the Savanna Project, which trains faculty to incorporate sustainability in their classes—from art to business to education,” Compas said. “The goal was to institutionalize sustainability so it was not just something people talked about one day a year. Instead, it was something everyone on campus talked about and was involved in.”
Compas was pleased when UW-Whitewater received the Green Ribbon School recognition for its work.
“Awards tend to go to campuses doing the flashy things,” he said. “What we are doing on campus is deep systemic change, and it is good to be rewarded for that.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra .com.
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