Hope Street Ministry Confronts 'Brokenness' In Milwaukee

Former Badgers Basketball Star Discusses Her Work At Homeless Shelter
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Wisconsin Public Television

Thomas: "We all acknowledge the fact that we're all broken in some way."

Communities across Wisconsin are adopting multiple approaches to alleviate homelessness, from a small shelter in Shawano to a new "housing first" apartment building in Madison to a similar approach in Milwaukee County. Officials and advocates are also confronting growing numbers of homeless children, and, at least in Madison, having a contentious political argument over how much to regulate the behavior of people living in public spaces.

While local governments are engaged in the fight against homelessness in Wisconsin, this effort also depends on dozens of nonprofit and faith-based agencies around the state. One of those groups is the Milwaukee-based Hope Street Ministry, which provides housing for about 40 Milwaukeeans recovering from addiction, other mental-health problems, and/or homelessness.

According to a count organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Milwaukee County had 1,521 homeless people in 2015. Those numbers are at odds with the state of Wisconsin's data on homeless public-school students. In the 2014-15 school year, the Department of Public Instruction counted 3,979 homeless children enrolled in that county's school districts and charter schools. This disparity reflects how homelessness is difficult to quantify in Wisconsin — and anywhere else.

As tricky as these statistics are, the numbers hardly reveal the sheer human complexity of homelessness. In a July 15, 2015 interview on Wisconsin Public Television's Here And Now, Hope Street executive director Ashley Thomas focused less on the policy and politics surrounding homelessness and spoke more to its emotional element. People who haven't been homeless or addicted might not always be able to relate to those situations, she said, but still might be able to see something of themselves in those struggles.

"We all acknowledge the fact that we're all broken in some way," Thomas said of the philosophy she uses when helping Hope Street's clients with their own forms of what she calls "brokenness."

In the interview, Thomas drew some parallels with her time as a star Wisconsin Badgers basketball player.

"I think one of the things I tell our men and women, especially who are dealing with addictions, it's like, 'Gosh, you are addicted to something that's really harmful to you, but I was just as addicted to the attention and the big, bright lights, and that isn't really healthy either,"' she said.

Thomas acknowledged that the two things still aren't nearly the same, though. "I can't by any means relate to some of the hard trauma of sexual abuse and the addictions of alcohol and drugs like many of our members," she said.

Hope Street isn't necessarily part of the emerging housing-first movement, which simply emphasizes giving homeless people the stability of housing before addressing other problems like employment or addiction. For instance, residents at the shelter have to stay sober. It's different from a typical homeless shelter in that it hosts men, women and children, and deals with problems often but not always related to homeless, especially substance abuse and mental illness.

Thomas said Hope Street has some vacancies in the summer, but tends to fill up during the winter to the point of having a waiting list. Any shelter or treatment center must to treat its clients on the individual level, but in the Here And Now interview, Thomas also discussed the family dynamics at Hope Street.

"[Working with children at the center is] cool for me, because it's a chance to kind of break down some of … those vicious cycles within families, and the kids can see a new way and see that they're loved just as they are," she said. “Hopefully as they see mom and dad get their lives back on track, they too can."

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