Target 2 Investigates: a lifeline for local homeless families

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - There are people who are providing a lifeline to homeless families in our community. They work tirelessly to keep roofs over the heads of people in need, and to solve a homeless housing crisis.

"When they don't have to worry about where they're sleeping that night, it's amazing how quickly people can get back up," says Jessica Ecke of the SOFT (Supporting Our Families Together) Program.

Following our Target 2 Investigates reports on the changing face of homelessness in Northeast Wisconsin, we received dozens of comments from viewers regarding the struggle to find safe and affordable housing. Many of those concerns revolve around larger families unable to find a place to live due to the price of rent for a three-bedroom place being out of reach.

Dozens of people, however, are going to great lengths to get families into homes and get landlords to look past rental history. Some people are spending their own money to help those who are struggling to afford a place to live.

One of the success stories is Roxanne, a mom of three who was homeless, but is now back on her feet.

"It's not anything I ever want to go through again. I'm glad I did, actually, but I don't ever want to again. It was a real eye opener," Roxanne says.

There are three shelters in Brown County that accept homeless families. Those shelters are at capacity and have people on wait lists. Parents and kids are forced to take shelter in abandoned buildings, friends' basements, or hotels.

There are no guarantees, says Andrea Pasqualucci, a social worker with the Ashwaubenon School District.

"In our area, on Packers weekends, our families who are staying in hotels and motels are often asked to leave," Pasqualucci says. "So our families are running an hour away to a hotel or staying in unsafe conditions."

One year ago, Roxanne and her three daughters became homeless in less than a week. She paid to repair her car so she could drive to work. She planned to use a housing voucher to cover rent. However, her landlord wouldn't accept the voucher and evicted the family.

"Even if you are homeless, it is scary to try and find somewhere to go," Roxanne says.

Roxanne signed up for every program she could find.

"I remember waiting for that call," Roxanne recalls. "Oh my God, it was like everything finally just started turning around for us."

Roxanne got into the SOFT Program, which is Supporting Our Families Together.

The United Way and private donations fund hotel vouchers at reduced costs, for several weeks, so families can save money and get into their own place.

"Most of them are working, but sometimes they're not working, but they just need that housing first so they can have an address, so they can start working, so they know where their kids are going to go after school, so they can have a work schedule," Ecke says.

At the same time, House of Hope enrolled Roxanne in a housing stability program.

"It was just really finding somebody who was willing to work with her, give her a shot, and she's doing great," says Trisha Picard, House of Hope, Housing Stability case manager.

The key is knowing the right landlords.

"Somebody has to explain that. It doesn't come across on an electronic application that you send in to a landlord," says Karen Michaels, executive director of domestic violence victim shelter Golden House.

Even with jobs, we found a lot of families can't get many landords to consider them.

"People can't take into account our story. We can't sit down and tell them here's what's happening in our lives," says "Marie", a homeless mom who asked us not to reveal her identity.

Ecumenical Partnership for Housing works with Broyer Properties, LLC, to give these families another chance.

"I talked to one landlord who said he just had an opening in one of his duplexes and he had 30 people apply for it," says Dave Pietenpol, EPH executive director. "Well if you had 30 people apply for one opening, the families we serve, it's impossible for them to get into one of these places."

EPH coaches families to budget and be good tenants. It also pays most of the rent at first.

Gradually, families are able to pay on their own.

"If we did our own background check on them, we would not be renting to them. But we understand the training they're going to get, the mentorship they're going to get, and we understand that when they come out of this program, they're going to be a good tenant," says Tony Broullire, Broyer Properties LLC. "Plus, it's getting people off the street and helping them be able to lead productive lives. I think it's a win, win, win."

A local organization that runs the federal housing voucher program is trying to teach more landlords how it works, hoping to add to the 800 landlords that currently accept the housing subsidy. Even so, it only helps a small fraction of the staggering number of people who we found on the brink of homelessness.

We'll introduce you to those people Thursday on Action 2 News at 10.

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