Editor’s note: This is the fourth part of a series examining homelessness in Brown County.
On a single winter night, as temperatures dipped into the single digits, volunteers traveled throughout Brown County, counting the sheltered and unsheltered individuals experiencing homelessness.
Point-in-time counts, held in January and July each year, provide a snapshot of homelessness in communities throughout the country.
As Brown County’s struggles with homelessness didn’t happen overnight, solutions to it haven’t come quickly, either. But before a solution can happen, actions need to be taken. One of those actions is trying to figure out the scope of the issue.
Paul VanHandel, coordinator of Newcap’s Homeless Outreach Team, said there’s no question Brown County’s homelessness struggle is a crisis. He said mental health issues are a major factor.
“When 50% of them have such significant mental health needs, to me, that’s a crisis when they’re living outside unsheltered,” he said.
Lexie Wood, the executive director at St. John’s Homeless Shelter, said though the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified disparities and issues that already existed, mental health barriers aren’t unique to pandemic years.
“If I had to summarize homelessness in our community down to one single cause, which isn’t really possible because it’s a complex problem, I would speak to mental health and just the breakdown of mental health services at a national level,” Wood said . “Really, I believe we are only beginning to scrape the surface of understanding mental health as it relates to overall wellness, as it relates to development, in, kind of, every regard.”
Terri Refsguard, New Community Shelter chief executive officer, said shelter representatives meet regularly to discuss what’s happening and how best to address it.
“The biggest topic of discussion is about the individuals who fall through the cracks because of severe mental health, which cause behaviors that don’t work out in a shelter, or even in an apartment,” she said. “We sat down, invited Brown County Health and Human Services representatives, and talked about those individuals that none of the other shelters are able to serve. What we found out is that the county has the same problem. They can identify all the issues, but where do we find housing for them?”
Refsguard said it’s time for the community and service providers to figure out how to address those who continue to fall through the cracks – the chronically homeless, those with mental health issues and those with medical challenges.
“Though we have a lot of people in our community with huge hearts that may bring sandwiches,” she said, “well, that’s nice, but it’s not helping the person in the long run.”
Refsguard said the concept of non-traditional shelter has been discussed as a possible solution.
“We have come together and said, ‘Yep, here is the gap, and here is what we need,’” she said. “It sounds like an assisted-living setting.”
MORE: For the homeless, Green Bay’s shelters meet needs of all kinds
MORE: Homelessness in Brown County is an ongoing struggle dealt with in shadows
MORE: Meet some of Brown County’s homeless working to get their lives back on track
VanHandel said HOT has discussed this very same thing.
“The Homeless Outreach Team has gone from working with people in traditional shelters to saying, ‘Hey, what does non-traditional shelter look like?’” he said. “We’ve talked about recovery care, or care in a non-traditional shelter model for three things: people needing medical or physical recovery models, mental health and then the third one is permanent disability or whatever we would consider a permanently disabling condition, which could also be a severe mental health issue – a mental health issue that is just ongoing and will never be, as far as we can tell, something that’s corrected through treatment, like a life illness.”
As Refsguard said, “The solution seems simple, right? But it requires a place and it requires money. It’s like a group home. It’s so simple, but it all boils down to money.
“But there are people in this community that might read something like that, that would say ‘Let’s do it.’ I hope that person, or persons, are out there.”
About this story
Heather Graves is the editor of The Press Times. This story was produced for the NEW News Lab, a local news collaboration in northeast Wisconsin made up of six news organizations, including FoxValley365, The Green Bay Press-Gazette, The Post-Crescent, The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Journalism Department is an educational partner. Microsoft is providing financial support to the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation and Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region to fund the initiative. The mission of the lab is to “collaborate to identify and fill information gaps to help residents explore ways to improve their communities and lives — and strengthen democracy.” You can make a donation to help support the lab’s work here.