The Super 8 in Whitewater is one of the hotels in the area that has recently partnered with Community Action to give those in need of immediate shelter a voucher to stay there temporarily.
The voucher program, which has been using money from the federal CARES Act passed last year, is one of the initiatives Community Action uses to find housing for those who need it in Rock and Walworth counties, said Marc Perry, executive director of the local not-for-profit group.
“It’s that first step to get people who are homeless or who are struggling off the street,” he said. “It’s that step, but the goal is permanent housing.”
But as Perry said can be the case with these type of efforts that aim to help those who are struggling with homelessness, not everyone is happy with how it has been handled so far.
Whitewater Police Chief Aaron Raap said before May his officers were “virtually never called there” to the Super 8. But he said he has noticed more activity there in the last month and wished he or the city were told about the voucher program ahead of time.
And yet, Perry and the hotel’s manager told The Gazette they have not had problems at the Super 8 so far and that they know how to handle problems if they do come up.
Perry worried about the stereotype that too strongly associates poverty with criminality, something he said he has heard many times over his more than 25 years in human services.
Raap said his concern was that if people are brought to the city and they need help, he wants to know that there are adequate resources available to help them. He did not want people dropped off in the city and left without direction of what to do next.
But he later said it was good to learn that Community Action assigns a case manager to stay connected with participants of its voucher program.
Perry explained that the case managers help program participants develop plans for employment, treatment and eventually the next steps on housing, for example.
“Nobody is ever abandoned,” he said.
Raap also said there was a “lack of information and communication” because they were surprised to learn about the voucher program through the department’s contact with people on calls for service.
When Perry was first contacted by a Gazette reporter, he said the first thing Community Action did was call the Super 8 to make sure there were no problems. He was told everything had been going well.
Ronak Patel, the Super 8 manager, said in an interview that everything was “fantastic.”
He said if guests cause trouble, they get a warning. If trouble persists, the Super 8 will kick them out, he said.
But he also said they have contact with Community Action to work out anything as needed.
“We want to help the community,” he said, adding that the program also helps his business.
When asked to quantify how many incidents police responded to at the Super 8 in May, Raap shared a list of roughly 15 calls that ranged from disorderly conduct and drug-related matters to medical problems, as well as a misdial and 911 hang-up.
But he said he could only confirm that six or seven of those calls were in fact participants in the voucher program. He maintained that had they known about the program earlier, they would have asked during some of the other responses.
Perry said Community Action has been available to answer questions if Raap or others in the city chose to call and ask.
Raap said it’s the “wrong thing to do” to house those in need at a place that isn’t fully equipped to take care of them and provide the necessary services. Resources are always limited, too, he added.
“I never want to come across as being heartless,” he said. “I do care about people, but we have our own people in need in this city.”
Community Action officials stressed that they work to get everyone who is involved with one or more of their housing programs the help they need to better their lives.
Siecira Harrison is someone who struggled with homelessness and an abusive relationship before she connected with Community Action. She had to sleep in her car for quite some time, and she had to take care of her three children.
She is still in contact with her case manager every week, she said. They’re able to look at her list of goals and cross items off one by one.
Her list started out with finding employment and child care.
“We knocked those off the list,” she said.
She remembered when her case manager once drove through “one of the worst snowstorms I’ve ever seen in my life” to get her necessary paperwork. Within about two weeks, Harrison was able to find a home.
Harrison, who is living in Rock County, said she continues to knock down more goals.
Perry said the successes he sees push him forward in dealing with all the challenges that come up. The vacancy rate in Rock and Walworth counties is quite low—perhaps around 1% or 2%—so building relationships with hotels that are willing to help them is crucial.
“We live in these communities also. So we like to be respectful, as well. They’re our communities,” he said. “I think people sometimes forget that. We do this work, but we also live here, as well.”