Individuals experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity face many challenges in their day-to-day activities. This week I was able to speak with Jesica Ballenger and Kelly Hedge, community prosecutors for the City of Milwaukee, about the physical and mental health concerns within the Milwaukee homeless community.
As community prosecutors, Jesica (left) represents District 3 (the Near West Side) and Kelly represents District 1 (Downtown). Together, they work on Near West Side Partners’ Homeless Intervention Team to communicate with community stakeholders, such as MPD, MUPD, and Marquette, to support and provide resources to housing insecure individuals in Milwaukee.
Jesica and Kelly explained that physical health refers to a person’s physical body and safety. In general, experiencing homelessness is not good for anyone’s physical health because being homeless is just not a healthy way to live. In regard to safety, housing insecure individuals are very susceptible to violence, victimization, and vulnerability.
Mental health refers to a person’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. It can be altered by trauma and alcohol/drug abuse, and Jesica noted that it can be incredibly difficult to get to the root of these issues without having stable housing.
In the Downtown and Near West Side neighborhoods, there are four main shelters for individuals suffering from housing insecurity: the Guest House, the Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army, and Cathedral Square. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted these shelters because social distancing guidelines dictate how full they can be– many shelters have had to reduce occupancy by 20% – 40%. Additionally, Kelly explained, many shelters across the city are no longer providing meal services at dinner time where people can socialize and let their guards down. Instead, many locations are holding “meal pick up” times each day. This has really changed the environment of how people can receive food.
Pictured above: (from left to right), the Guest House, St. Ben’s, and the Rescue Mission
Furthermore, locations where homeless individuals would typically go during the day time to avoid the hot Wisconsin sun, such as the Milwaukee Central Library on Wisconsin Avenue, are closed for the summer because of the virus. Instead of being able to go inside, charge their phones, and read a book, many homeless individuals now spend their days sitting outside or walking around. Kelly emphasized that the pandemic has caused the existing homeless population to become more visible because they have nowhere to go.
Jesica and Kelly also spent some time discussing panhandling. Kelly explained that with the COVID-19 virus, many restaurants downtown have tried to expand their outdoor patio seating sections. This, however, has been met with a slight increase in more aggressive panhandling. Kelly stressed that it is very important not to give money to aggressive panhandlers and not to engage in that negative reinforcement.
Jesica added that while panhandling is not illegal as long as it is in a public space and that people conduct themselves appropriately, it is important to remember that panhandling does not equate to homelessness.
Finally, Jesica, Kelly, and I discussed what resources are available to housing insecure individuals struggling with physical and mental health concerns. The best recommendation they had is for people struggling to call 211. This number will connect callers with resources regarding mental health, alcohol and other drug abuse, and housing.
For more housing insecurity and homelessness resources, click the link here.
Thank you to Jesica and Kelly for taking the time to speak with me about this important issue, as well as the entire Homeless Intervention Team, consisting of NWSP, Marquette, Milwaukee DA’s Office, MPD, MUPD, and local businesses, for their continued support in addressing the physical and mental health needs in the Milwaukee homeless community.