Getting out of the cold

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Margaret Plevak | January 9, 2014

DELAVAN—The bitterly cold temperatures this week that closed schools, froze pipes and transformed car batteries into dead lumps of metal also turned people's minds—even if only fleetingly—to the homeless out on the streets in temperatures caused frostbite to exposed skin in less than 10 minutes.

But while a January thaw is promised to slowly warm things up, Walworth County's Emergency Homeless Shelter is still in need—as it is year round—of basic supplies for its residents.

“We absolutely need warm clothing, hats and mittens, but there's always an ongoing need for things like men's socks and underwear and day-to-day items like toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap and shampoo,” said Lynn Curtis, general manager of the Delavan-based shelter, which is composed of 11 area churches that take weekly turns providing space in their facilities for homeless men to sleep at night. The shelter operates September through April.

The shelter site for the week of January 5 to 11 is Chapel on the Hill, N2440 Ara Glen Drive in Lake Geneva, and Curtis said the number of men using the site currently has been between 12 and 18.

The shelter provides residents with not only a warm place to sleep, but serves dinner and breakfast, and hands out sack lunches. The shelter generally opens at 5 p.m. daily, and men must leave by 8 a.m., whether to head out to a job or hang out at the local library. Bur so far this week because of dangerously cold weather, residents were allowed to stay inside the church during the day. 

Curtis said shelter volunteers are needed to help residents check in, serve meals, and set up and take down the sleeping spaces. She said the shelters prefers to have at least two volunteers stay overnight, and although they don't need to stay awake the whole time, they should be available in case of an emergency—like when one man suffering from pneumonia had to be taken to the hospital.

Curtis said the shelter would also welcome more church sites, food and monetary donations as well as supplies.

Some groups get creative in their support, she said—like the local Girl Scout troop that created individual personal hygiene bags for residents out of two washcloths sewn together and filled with shampoo, soap and toothpaste.

Because the Walworth County Emergency Homeless Shelter only takes in men, women and children who need shelter are referred elsewhere, often to the Transitional Living Center, Inc., at 482 S. Pine St. in Burlington. There director Cristen Chaffee can provide not only a temporary shelter, but a program that can help residents find a job and a permanent place to live, manage a paycheck and even get life coaching to give them some direction.

“I know homelessness has been an issue in Milwaukee, but our population of homeless is a little bit different,” said Chaffee, a former Milwaukee social worker. “We haven't seen an increase in cars and tents down by the river, but we've seen a definite increase in the overall number of people who are facing evictions or have lost jobs because of the economy. Their needs are rising significantly. We've been busy. Very busy.”

Currently, TLC has 22 residents. The Burlington-based shelter can house 16 residents, dorm-style. TLC cannot accept any boys older than 12, but the shelter also has a duplex in Walworth County that can house two families, including couples and older boys. 

Of the 46 women (and 59 children) that Chaffee has seen go through the shelter's program, 33 have gotten full-time jobs and 22 have moved into their own housing.
She said the shelter always needs supplies for its facilities, like cleaning and paper products, and items for residents, ranging from clothing to baby powder.

Chaffee would also like to see more awareness for the homeless, both by politicians and the public.

Recent changes in health care laws can be confusing enough for her employees applying for health insurance, she said, let alone single mothers struggling to get by or people with few job skills.

“The funding for shelters is being cut as the government is going more toward transitional housing rather than emergency housing,” Chaffee said. “Unfortunately, many of the homeless aren't ready for transitional housing. They need work, they may have post-traumatic stress, they may need therapy, medications, parenting, basic hygiene,  budgeting or job skills. They need a hand getting there.”

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