Federal housing data is showing a drop in homelessness in Wisconsin, but area shelters still face more demand than they can handle.
“We’ve been full. It’s sad,” said Cindy LeGrand, executive director of River Haven Homeless Shelter. “Right now we have a housing shortage here and we have been reaching out to other areas such as Baraboo and I have been told they have housing shortages there, too.”
River Haven in Portage is one of a handful of area homeless shelters, with an eight-bed men’s shelter and 16-bed family shelter.
“I don’t know about the other areas, but it scares me because I don’t know where we can house them,” LeGrand said.
Posted on a wall in the office of the shelter at the corner of DeWitt and West Pleasant streets is a list of over a dozen other shelters, with many of those in Madison and Milwaukee and nearby centers in Reedsburg, Baraboo, Fond du Lac and Beaver Dam.
According to the past two annual reports by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Wisconsin has seen dropping numbers of homeless residents with the 2016 report showing a count of 2,886 homeless people in Wisconsin, down to 2,645 in 2017. The number of those reported as “unsheltered” dropped from 410 to 340.
Those who have found themselves stranded in Portage do not fit a profile, LeGrand said.
“The residents can come from all over — I had a lady from Switzerland and she was fleeing domestic violence,” she said. “She was staying here for a while and then went to the (domestic violence) shelter in Baraboo.”
In recent years, community leaders have been able to streamline the use of resources available through the Portage Area Community Assistance Program.
The Rev. Gary Krahenbuhl of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church said the Portage Area Community Assistance Program “is really a cooperative of area parishes and other organizations to assist individuals with emergency needs.”
Before this network was in place ensuring communication between parishes, government agencies and local organizations, help was sought by people by going down the line and knocking on church doors, or being referred to St. Mary because its pastor “had the checkbook” for the Clergy Relief Fund, according to Krahenbuhl.
“If someone will come to me, which they will often come to churches as their first place to go in their crisis moment, we are able to work closely with Cindy to make sure they are provided housing at one of the shelters or to assist them,” Krahenbuhl said, “and this is where Clergy Relief comes in — to assist them through that fund to pay for rent or support them in that particular month.”
River Haven has benefited from grant funding in the past, such last year when the shelter was able to do window repair through funding from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.
“We’re not guaranteed to get it again this year, so we are looking for support from the community to remodel the bathrooms and, of course, the roof,” said LeGrand, referring to the “Raise the Roof” fund to replace the shelter roof. This will be a focus of the annual Harmony for the Homeless Concert at the Portage Center for the Arts on May 12.
The Harmony for the Homeless concert is shelter’s top fundraising opportunity of the year, having raised around $8,000 in the past. Performers this year will be Mike Powers, The Flannels, Bella Note, Arm and Hammer Ragtime Duo and Chris and Mike Hurd.
“All of the proceeds go to the roof, plus we have two bathrooms that we need to remodel,” LeGrand said.