When you think of areas where homeless people huddle in tents or sleep in cars, Muskego and New Berlin seldom come to mind,
Yet, in recent years, these idyllic suburban burbs on the border of metro Milwaukee have experienced what usually is found in big cities, not on the edges.
Instead of living under bridges and in dark alleys, they can be found in wooded areas, parks and libraries.
Taking head on the emerging presence of homelessness and poverty in the area is the Muskego Police Chief Richard Rens. His new initiative calls for officers to have lists of resources at the ready to provide to help those in crisis.
The list would include food pantries, counseling services for finances and parenting advice, he said.
“Whatever they need to get back on track,” Rens said. “We’re approaching church and business leaders in the county,” to come up with solutions for those who are out of options.
“So they can come out on the other side,” he said.
Here's what the area has experienced only recently:
A family of four called Muskego County Park their home, a family of seven lived in another area park, a homeless man lived in a fringe of woods near the New Berlin City Center and a 62-year-old woman was sleeping on the ground in a park, according to officials from food banks, St. Vincent de Paul Societies and police departments. Efforts both grass roots and permanent are emerging to help the needy.
Officials recall an incident in which a Muskego woman and her 17-year-old son for 12 days last Christmas lived in her car. The woman's son-in-law had gambled away the rent money and her family lost their apartment. Through local efforts, she and her son now have an apartment.
David Anderson, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Leonard’s Catholic Church, Muskego, well remembers the couple and their two teenage children who lived in Muskego County Park for months during one summer. Their story is both heart-wrenching and inspiring.
The society provided aid to the family including bringing the family food.
They were discovered when one of the children told friends at Lake Denoon Middle School that his family lived in the park, Muskego Police Chief Rens said. They lost their home due to medical bills and the father's inability to work for a time, he said.
When the public learned of the family's plight, Muskego residents rallied to help them. Waukesha County helped by waiving its limit as to how long campers can stay.
“We worked with our food pantry, getting them a place to live and employment,” Rens said. The Muskego Food Pantry gave the father a bicycle that he rode up and down the city in search of an apartment, which he eventually found, said Julie Frahmann, pantry founder. The mother found work at a restaurant within walking distance of their new flat. The father got a job at Walmart because he now had transportation.
Local churches provided furnishings for the new home. Lake Denoon Middle School held a fund drive, raising enough to cover the first two months rent. The food pantry took care of the safety deposit. When the fund drive money was exhausted, a Lake Denoon teacher provided the rent money for more months, Anderson said.
Similar issues have hit neighboring New Berlin. A seven-member family exhausted its savings while searching for an apartment in New Berlin. Holy Apostles Catholic Church here helped a couple, said Mary Ann Hollenback, president of the church's St Vincent de Paul Society.
"They were a very, very, very nice family, unbelievably nice,” she said.
The father had come to New Berlin for a job. His wife and their five young children followed, expecting to rent an apartment while they saved up for a house.
“I don’t think they realized how difficult it would be to find a place to rent to seven people,” Hollenback said.
They tried Milwaukee and Waukesha neighborhoods they felt it would be safe for the children, she said.
Finally, at the end of their savings, the couple and the five children, all age 8 and younger, moved to a local park, spending almost the entire summer of 2015 in a small camper and a tent in scorching heat. Hollenback didn’t want to say which area park they had lived in.
To give them some relief, the society put the family up in a motel for 10 days, straining the society's finances, Hollenback said.
At summer’s end, the mother moved back home out of state so the children could resume school. Their father continued to work in New Berlin.
End in mystery
How their story ended is a mystery. That happens a lot with homeless people - like the woman in her early 50s who was living out of her car, probably in New Berlin's Malone Park, last year.
“We gave her food a couple of times,” said Barbara Jacob, assistant director of the New Berlin Food Pantry. “We tried to direct her to police and social services. But, I don’t think she went. She didn’t want anything to do with government agencies.
"The homeless woman was a frustrating case. We realized she needed more help.” Then she disappeared.
Near city center
That also was true for a man in his 50s who lived in wooded places around the city, including a fringe of trees along National Avenue, a short distance west of the New Berlin City Center.
“During the day, he’d move around,” said New Berlin Police Captain Michael Glider.
When police got complaints about him pitching his makeshift tent, police paid a call.
“He wasn’t doing anything illegal,” as the areas were never posted “no trespassing,” Glider said. “We told him to leave and he did.”
Finally, he left and he didn’t come back.
As far as New Berlin police know, the man never made use of police suggestions for how to get help.
“We definitely gave him a bunch of choices as to where he could go. But he opted to remain homeless for the time he was in New Berlin,” Glider said. One of the options police suggested was the Salvation Army in Waukesha.
Even though the man had no car, “We would have given him a ride, if he had wanted to go,” Glider said.
Slept on ground
It was a happier story for a woman, 62, who was sleeping on the ground in Muskego County Park for two weeks last October.
“She ran the heater in the car for half the night to stay warm,” spending the rest of the night on the ground, said Anderson of the St. Leonard’s St. Vincent de Paul. He helped her find an efficiency apartment in West Allis.
Although she had an apartment before, finding another seemed to elude her.
“When they are desperate, a lot of people aren’t thinking right,” Anderson said. “They can’t set priorities.”
Car people drift
Some homeless people live in cars, tending to drift from parking lot to parking lot around the city.
Anderson knows of a trio of people who lived in their car for months, going from one park and ride lot to another. Previously, they had apartments in Muskego.
“I’d put them up for a week, so they could clean up, take a shower,” Anderson said. And he pointed them toward WCTC where they could find job listings or go to job fairs. They too eventually disappeared, perhaps into better lives.