Men from the GIFTS Men’s Shelter in Janesville were passing out donuts and lots of smiles at Beloit Life Center on Sunday to give back to the volunteers who have fed and encouraged them.
“This church provided 692 meals for our men this year, and that is huge. We rely on our churches to feed our men. Today we are serving donuts to give back—a gesture of gratitude,” GIFTS Men’s Shelter Executive Director MaryAnn Raash said.
The GIFTS Men’s Shelter offers a 44-bed facility at 105 N. Washington Ave. and a life recovery home at 502 E. Holmes St. It provides a place to sleep, meals, camaraderie and recovery services to homeless men in Rock County.
Raash explained how the men arriving without a home have a variety of challenges, ranging from a lack of work to substance abuse issues, as well as mental illness and trauma. The shelter also serves many veterans.
“Each man gets an intake, gets a treatment plan, volunteers and attends devotions. We don’t force you to believe, but we believe you cannot do this alone. We are God dependent,” Raash said.
As the men make progress, they move to the life recovery house to transition from shelter life to independence. The men sometimes need to learn soft skills as well as basic job skills, improve their credit, obtain transportation and find a support system.
“At the life recovery home they learn financial planning and how to budget, and we are creating a program where they will pay-to-stay,” Raash said.
The shelter opened the GIFTS Thrift Store, 1141 Black Bridge Road, Janesville, in November 2020 offering gently used goods for sale to drum up funds for the shelter. The store has clothing, shoes, housewares and more.
“To me it feels like walking into a T.J. Maxx,” Raash said.
Raash started at the shelter June 7. She replaced Stephanie Burton, who moved out of state.
Raash explained GIFTS does not receive government funding, instead relying on donations from churches and private individuals.
It has been a life saver for men like 52-year-old Johnny Kloepping.
“GIFTS is a wonderful place. If you go there with an open mind and positive attitude they have resources and the ability to help you achieve things in life,” Kloepping said.
Kloepping, of the Janesville-Milton area, had been working in a factory, but lost his job due to alcoholism. He became homeless last year and moved into his car. The vehicle later broke down and Kloepping began sleeping in the vehicle on the side of the road.
He became sober seven months ago and entered GIFTS. He said the shelter feels like “home,” only with more roommates.
“It’s given me the stability of a bed, shelter, meals and the opportunity to become sober and establish employment. I now have two jobs. I work at the YMCA and the gas station,” he said.
Kloepping’s main goal now is to stay sober and find a way to give back to GIFTS and Alcoholics Anonymous for helping him get his life back.
William Cruzado, 42, has been at GIFTS for 30 days.
“I’m a survivor of drugs and alcohol and have been clean and sober for two years,” he said.
Cruzado grew up in Connecticut where he said he was an atheist, was abused as a child and had suicidal thoughts. In Florida, he worked as a car salesman and hotel bellman. However, he got caught up in drugs and a poor lifestyle until he began his new life as a Christian.
He moved earlier this year from Florida to Wisconsin with his girlfriend. But he decided not to move in with her until he saved enough money for them to live together as a married couple.
“It’s better that we live apart. I’m trying to do everything according to the will of God,” he said.
Cruzado said he likes how the shelter provides Christian praise, offers structure and allows the men to come and go as long as they are home by curfew. He hopes to one day work for GIFTS to help other men.
“Janesville is where God wants me,” Cruzado said.
Beloit Life Center volunteer Paula Story was thrilled to have the men at church Sunday.
Volunteers from Beloit Life Center serve meals, help manage the intake and distribution of food, lead devotions on Thursday mornings and staff the thrift store with volunteers.
“It’s such a worthy and incredible ministry. These men come in and they get shelter, nourishment, clothing and get guidance to rebuild their lives,” Story said.
Story said she was especially moved when one man she helped returned to share with her that he had a job and had been reunited with his family.
GIFTS board member Sarah Hawthorne said GIFTS established its stand-alone shelter about five years ago. Previously, the shelter had been moving from church to church. Having a designated shelter, Hawthorne said, is critical for providing stability to those who have been living off the street.
“It offers them more stability and gets them out of the routine of going from place to place and gives them a place to store their stuff,” she said.
Finding shelter for homeless single adults without children continues to be a challenge.
She said GIFTS is forming a committee to discuss sheltering single women. Currently, single women in the area can only seek refuge at Defy Domestic Abuse Beloit or the House of Mercy, although the House of Mercy usually has a waiting list.