Susan Baumann-Duren has a dream.
“It’s a really big dream and it would be quite expensive,” she said. “It would be to have a homeless shelter in town. It would start out as a place for teens because they are the most vulnerable, but then we would bring in families.”
As a social worker for the Sauk Prairie School District, Baumann-Duren also serves as the Alcohol and Other Drugs coordinator and homelessness coordinator for the school district. Her office is packed with residual Christmas presents, clothing, food and other assorted items donated for her to give to students in need.
Baumann-Duren said she is fortunate to work in such a caring and supportive community.
“My social worker colleagues often ask me how I get the things I get,” Baumann-Duren said. “Truly it’s almost always been, ‘Ask and you shall receive.’”
The one thing the community could use most in her eyes — a soft bed and warm place to sleep for the community’s homeless population — is a far-off wish.
In the Sauk Prairie School District, there are 64 children living without a home, Baumann-Duren said. It comes as a surprise to those who ask her if those families came here from Chicago.
“These are children and families who have grown up here,” Baumann-Duren said. “Many people don’t realize homelessness can affect anyone in their lifetime. It could be your neighbor. It is someone who looks exactly like you, but you wouldn’t know because they aren’t likely to share that.”
While each case of homelessness comes with different reasons, there are a few underlying causes.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a lack of affordable housing, low income wages, underlying health issues, racial disparities and those fleeing domestic violence are the most vulnerable.
For Baraboo resident Renee Greenland, escaping physical and emotional violence was the issue.
Greenland met a man at a gym she’d joined. In the beginning, everything seemed fine.
“He initially presented as a kind, gentle, loving and attentive partner,” Greenland said. “It all seemed quite innocent and fun. In some ways like a dream come true.”
She was living with a man who had a mental health diagnosis. Months after they met he stopped taking his medication.
“At first, being the person I am, I felt compassion for him and what he was going through,” Greenland said. “But I soon met a very different version of him for the first time; like Jeckyl and Hyde on steroids.”
By the time the red flags became apparent, Greenland was sharing an apartment with him and her name was on the lease. She went to her landlord and shared her plight. Her landlord told Greenland that because her name was on the lease it was her responsibility.
Feeling defeated Greenland returned to her apartment. Meanwhile, the man continued the manipulation and threats.
“Unfortunately, the real nightmare was yet to come,” Greenland said. “The next time he went off his meds and I tried to leave, he began to physically harm me with the intention of making it physically impossible for me to leave.”
With her finances drained, her credit ruined and her car damaged by members of his family, Greenland felt alone and without options. He had successfully isolated her from family and friends. He’d also stolen her passport. What ultimately led to Greenland’s final and successful attempt to leave wasn’t the harm he was causing her. It was when she learned her beloved cat hadn’t died from sickness, but at his hands.
Greenland began to pack and hide items she could grab in a hurry. It was only what she could fit in her car: her favorite clothing, some important documents, her jewelry-making tools, laptop and printer.
To this day, Greenland doesn’t know how she was able to finally leave.
“I don’t think it was courage,” Greenland said. “I think it was just this desperate feeling he was going to kill me.”
She fled the state, fearful he would find her. She was living in her car. Eventually, she returned to Wisconsin and settled in Sauk City for a few months. That’s when she learned about some of the resources available to her. With the help of the Wisconsin Dells based Central Wisconsin Community Action Council, she landed in transitional housing through Project Chance, a rapid rehousing initiative of the Council.
Greenland has served for five years as a board member on the Central Wisconsin Community Action Council as its formerly homeless advocate. She works for the organization’s Wisconsin Balance of State Continuum of Care program, helping juveniles who are aging out of foster care in Columbia, Sauk, Dodge and Marquette counties.
Greenland’s boss, Wendy Schneider, is the council’s homeless prevention unit supervisor and case manager for the council. It serves Sauk, Columbia, Dodge, Adams and Juneau counties with a variety of programs for the homeless, such as crisis assistance, emergency shelter grants, transitional housing and skills enhancement training.
While situations like Greenland’s contribute to homelessness statistics, Schneider said any number of factors can keep a person or family chronically homeless or needing help at one point in their life.
“It could be an illness, a new baby, a time without employment. ” Schneider said. “If a person loses income even temporarily and they live paycheck to paycheck, they are always trying to catch up. If they can’t pay their rent they stand a good chance of losing their home. And once there is an eviction, it’s hard to get a rental even if they find a job.”
She said with landlords requiring a security deposit and first month’s rent, finding a place to live becomes difficult.
“If you are already financially strained, trying to come up with several hundred dollars becomes a barrier,” Schneider said. “Or if your car breaks down or your kids get sick … More often than not people are one unfortunate event away from getting behind.”
Within its homeless unit, the Central Wisconsin Community Action Council offers programs in crisis assistance, emergency food and shelter and transitional housing. In Juneau County, the organization also offers energy assistance and weatherization help in Adams, Columbia, Juneau and Sauk Counties. By providing help to low income individuals and families in other ways, Schneider said it frees up money to go toward rent.
The struggles with homelessness in the Sauk County area increased with the closing of the warming shelter in Baraboo last year. The former owners, Matt and Rachelle Fearson, estimated up to 40 people used the shelter each winter, typically filling the 20 beds by January.
There are other shelter and programs available, bu they are often at capacity.
That’s the situation with Safe Harbor Homeless Shelter in Reedsburg, said executive director Denise Martalock. Safe Harbor is transitional housing for women and their children. The four-bedroom house can accommodate up to 12 people — four women and up to seven children. Safe Harbor is currently at capacity.
Part of the issue stems from a lack of affordable housing in the area.
Martalock said Safe Harbor is intended to be temporary — between one to three months — but there are times when a person is there up to six because they can’t find housing. Beyond six months, things get challenging.
“Then it becomes harder for the individual to get assistance from county, because technically then they aren’t considered homeless,” Martalock said. “It can be a catch-22. Thankfully our residents have more good luck than bad luck in finding places to go.”
Martalock said Safe Harbor isn’t equipped to accommodate those fleeing from domestic violence that requires round-the-clock staffing and special security measures.
Hope House in Baraboo does.
Hope House aims to prevent abuse and provide support to victims of domestic and sexual violence. Its service area includes Sauk, Columbia, Juneau, Marquette and Adams counties. Hope House offers a 24/7 toll-free helpline, advocacy, supportive counseling, children’s programming and community education, in addition to shelter.
Despite available resources, there are still those who either don’t know help is available and others are too ashamed to ask for it. Others still might fall into the chronically homeless category.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines chronically homeless as an individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or one who has had at least four episodes of homelessness over a three-year period. In its definition of a chronically homeless person, HUD defines the term “homeless” as “a person sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation.
Greenland said she might not have ended up homeless if she’d known what resources were available to her. Because of that, she advocates for the homeless by serving as the Central Wisconsin Community Action Council’s formerly homeless representative. Greenland hopes through her efforts she is bringing a different voice to the epidemic and changing others’ perceptions.
“One thing I will say is I really feel I have contributed to people’s understanding of homelessness,” Greenland said. She even helped change the term “recidivism” to describe someone formerly homeless who falls back to being without a home.
“I told them I was uncomfortable with the term because it is also used to describe a person in the world of law enforcement,” Greenland said. “I told them what I went through and how that term makes it seem like I am responsible for my situation.”
That opened some people’s eyes and as a result, a statewide change in the term “recidivist” in the world of homelessness is now called a “homeless reoccurrence.”
Other grassroots efforts are also making an impact. The Circles U.S.A program model is based on teaching real, long-term solutions for people living in poverty.
Circles U.S.A. believes the responsibility for both poverty and prosperity rests on the individual but also with societies, institutions and communities. The program centers on a person living in poverty who wants to work toward stability. Called the circle leader, the individual identifies barriers and goals. With the assistance of two carefully matched allies — middle to upper-income individuals — they develop a plan to reach their goals.
Circles U.S.A. programs can be found in more than 70 communities in 19 states and parts of Canada.
The Sauk Prairie area 6:8 organization founders John and Sarah Ramthun have pledged Sauk Prairie will be Circle’s 72nd chapter and second in Wisconsin. The Ramthuns came across the program while on a mission trip in Joplin, Missouri. Interested, they took home information on Circles.
Impressed by the success the program has had in reducing poverty and homeless statistics in other communities, the Ramthuns approached their board of directors and began talks with Circles U.S.A. 6:8 has embarked on the year-long journey of training and foundation-building to become a Circles chapter, with the goal of launching it in October.
“We don’t think we can save everyone with this program,” Ramthun said. “But we do believe it will have a significant impact on the Sauk Prairie community.”