Struggling Ozaukee family finds resources, hope

These days, Port Washington resident Kelly Zimdars is doing fine. But less than a year ago, everything was drastically different.

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These days, Port Washington resident Kelly Zimdars is doing fine.

She lives in an apartment she loves, she found an inexpensive van to drive and her charismatic son, Cameron, is in the second grade. She even built up enough vacation from her full-time job with Fabrico to go see Bret Michaels at the Dodge County Fair last month.

But less than a year ago, everything was drastically different.

After the end of an abusive relationship led her back to Wisconsin, where she was born, Zimdars moved in with her cousin and his wife in August 2015. When November rolled around, they informed her they were moving on Dec. 1 and she would have to find somewhere else to stay.

With just two weeks to find a place she could afford on the salary of her brand-new job, Zimdars had no car, no house and nowhere to turn.

And she had almost given up on finding anyone to lend a helping hand in Ozaukee County, the second-wealthiest county in Wisconsin with a median household income of $75,643 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Then she stumbled across the Facebook page for Family Promise of Ozaukee County, a local branch of the organization that provides assistance to homeless families across the nation.

Although the branch was just officially opening up, Zimdars sent an email and was soon called in for an interview with director Kathleen Christenson Fisher.

“My mom came with me, and I cried, and she cried,” Zimdars recalled. “As open as this is, it takes a lot for you to swallow your pride and accept the help. I’m very prideful. But I knew I had to do it for me and my son.”

Providing connections, resources

The Family Promise model works through a network of volunteers at area churches that open their doors to host homeless families overnight and provide food, activities and face-to-face interaction.

During the day, families are picked up from the churches and driven to a day center in Port Washington, where they can shower and do laundry. Additionally, case manager Lana Roever connects them to resources for jobs, housing, transportation and more.

“I never know who’s going to walk through the door or who’s going to call me on the phone each day I come here,” Roever said. “If we weren’t here, there would be a lot of people that wouldn’t know how to get to some of the resources they need.”

In Zimdars’ case, the first major resource she needed was an affordable mode of transportation. Aside from the Ozaukee County Express bus that runs along Interstate 43, the county’s only source of public transportation is the Shared Ride taxi service, which Zimdars called “very expensive.”

Luckily, Fisher was able to find Zimdars an inexpensive van, using just one of the many connections Family Promise uses to aid its guests.

“(Lana) will work with them on an action plan for self-sufficiency,” Fisher explained. “Part of that could be employment, it could be a housing search, it could be connecting them to a behavioral health clinic.”

Considering personal needs

Behavioral and mental health issues often plague those experiencing homelessness, with more than one-fifth of Wisconsin’s homeless population identified with a severe mental illness, according to the state’s 2015 Point-in-Time count from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Roever said that although Family Promise of Ozaukee County is not yet equipped with resources to serve someone with an untreated severe mental illness, each of the families the organization has served so far has experienced some sort of issue with mental health.

For Zimdars, it was her son — before their stay at Family Promise, he was struggling in school and demonstrating some underlying behavioral health problems.

With Fisher and Roever’s assistance, Zimdars had Cameron seeing a counselor in West Bend and receiving psychiatric help. They also helped her speak with his school and get him the help he needed there, too.

“It seemed to me like (Kelly) needed a voice,” Fisher said. “We were (her) voice for (her) side of the story, helping (her) advocate for Cameron.”

The Family Promise staff even organized a special Christmas celebration for Cameron, complete with presents and a stop from Santa Claus. Zimdars said she was really stressing the holiday, and they went “above and beyond.”

When Zimdars had enough money to formally rent an apartment with Cary Rentals, Family Promise of Ozaukee wrote her a letter of recommendation. And after four months of staying there, Zimdars received a full stock of paper goods and towels from the staff before she and Cameron moved out on their own.

Addressing homelessness in Ozaukee County

According to the 2015 United Way Update on Homelessness in Ozaukee County, an estimated 4,478 people in Ozaukee County live below the federal poverty level — that’s only 5.2 percent of the population, but Roever said she receives calls every day from folks seeking resources either to prevent imminent homelessness or receive shelter from literal homelessness.

On top of that, those seeking resources must face the stigma of being homeless in Ozaukee County, where Fisher said communities are so well-off, many people do not even think there are families living in poverty. And if they do, they don’t often want to admit it.

“As I went through it, the standard Ozaukeeanite kind of snubs their nose up to it,” Zimdars said. “They don’t want to believe that the second-richest county in Wisconsin has an issue.”

Even existing programs in the area like Family Promise and the local Salvation Army — which Roever said only has the resources to help each needy family once a year — are not getting the financial support they need, according to Mark Gierach, a former board member and current driver for the organization.

Gierach, a retired deputy from the Ozaukee County Sheriff's Department, said it is important for community members to realize that the face of homelessness they will see in Ozaukee County does not look like it does in a large metropolitan area, where people are sleeping in alleys and under bridges.

Rather, he said those facing homelessness are often living out of their car or doubled or tripled up with family members “until the welcome is worn out.”

“Prior to (Family Promise) opening, I had at least one family that was living out of their car for several months,” Gierach recalled. “That’s tough when you’ve got kids.”

But Fisher said that one of this program’s goals is to make people in need aware that resources do exist in Ozaukee County and point them in the direction of help.

In addition to housing families, Family Promise has opened up its services to single females as well, Fisher said. She added that knowing the organization is meeting a community need that was not addressed before is the most gratifying part of her work.

“Families aren’t used to having a resource like Family Promise in Ozaukee County,” Fisher said. “We want to get them connected to the right resources, and move them out of their sense of hopelessness into a sense of hopefulness.”

For Zimdars, that sense of hopefulness is very clear. She is confident she will not return to homelessness, and credited Family Promise for sticking by her side.

“They helped me get going, to make it out,” Zimdars said. “They’re always here for me.”

Part 2: Volunteers pitch in to shelter homeless Ozaukee families

In a quiet upper corner of Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Mequon on Aug. 15, Barb Janssen laid out a colorful tablecloth and began to prepare dinner for two.

Taco salad and homemade banana bread was on the menu. Later that night, Janssen would sit down and share it with Anna*, a homeless woman staying at the church for the week. Anna also has a room of her own to sleep in, two volunteers that stay with her overnight and breakfast and a packed lunch in the morning.

This was no extraordinary circumstance or one-time occurrence for the people of Crossways, however.

The church serves as a host congregation for Family Promise of Ozaukee County, an organization that provides shelter for families and single women experiencing homelessness. The 22 participating congregations either offer to host the families or provide support in other ways.

Family Promise has a national reach, with affiliates in 41 states and more than 400 volunteers pitching in across the country.

For Janssen, the choice to become one of those volunteers was a simple one when Family Promise of Ozaukee County launched in December 2015.

“I just have always been interested in homelessness in general, and it’s nice to serve locally rather than driving an hour and forty-five minutes, which I still do,” Janssen said. “But if there’s a need locally, it’s nice to be part of that service as well.”

Janssen also serves on the branch’s board of trustees alongside board president Suzy Frazier, who is also a member at Crossroads and stopped by that day to check in.

Frazier explained that there are roughly 70 volunteers from their congregation who pitch in one week per quarter when Family Promise guests come to stay. And often, those volunteers get attached to the people they serve.

“If you found yourself at the point where you don’t know where you’re going to put your head the next night, you’ve also lost a lot of support network,” Frazier said. “People at churches care, and they want to encourage you, and they want to be there to care about you.”

Besides cooking meals, a process that includes addressing any special dietary instructions for the guests and updating a Google Doc so there aren’t any meal repeats, volunteers get rooms ready and provide hospitality—whether that means playing with the children, talking with the families or giving them needed space.

Playing a big role

Kathleen Christenson Fisher, executive director of Family Promise of Ozaukee County, also said that often times, volunteers are also the ones to give guests leads on employment, housing or transportation resources.

One thing Crossroads boasts is a spacious gym, their old sanctuary space that was converted when they redid the building.

And just across the hall, there is a closet full of blankets, towels, crafts and children’s books, videos and games that have been donated by church members.

“The volunteers are really the secret sauce of Family Promise because of the love and compassion they provide, and the care that they’re able to demonstrate with the families in their most vulnerable time,” Fisher said. “People are really letting their faith shine through their love of families who need them.”

Frazier speaks with Lana Roever, the case manager for Family Promise of Ozaukee County, on a regular basis and reports back to her congregation on how the families they have served are faring.

She also said in October, during National Family Promise Week, she will be speaking to the entire congregation—about 1,200 people—about Family Promise’s purpose and the need their community has.

“It’s a good opportunity for people that are in our church to see a face of homelessness that’s very different than perhaps their perception of the guy on the street downtown, or something like that,” Frazier explained. “These are people who have just hit a hard time, hit a rock in the road, without a safety net.”

As Janssen finished preparing the food, she said she finds it important for the guests to talk to one another and the volunteers while eating dinner— even if it is just Anna this time around— to take advantage of some fellowship.

She added that spreading the word about the people Family Promise serves and the needs they have plays an integral part of what she does for the organization.

“I love talking to other people that have no awareness that this kind of an issue happens in Ozaukee County, because a lot of people just don’t,” Janssen said. “Granted, we don’t have 25 people here tonight. But there is a need.”

If you would like to join the network of volunteers for Family Promise of Ozaukee County, call 262-268-2723 or email lana@familypromiseozaukee.org.

Part 3: Move for affordable housing sits stagnant in county

To some residents in Ozaukee County, the words ‘affordable housing’ might never cross their minds.

After all, one in 10 households in the area earns a yearly income of $200,000 or more, according to the 2015 Ozaukee County Economic Indicator Report. And in many cases, that can offset the median gross rent of $820 per month or the  $1,775 per month cost to own a home with a mortgage, according to data from the most recent U.S. census.

But when formerly homeless Port Washington resident Kelly Zimdars heard those words, she just chuckled.

“It’s kind of an oxymoron,” she said.

When Zimdars was homeless and taking shelter with Family Promise of Ozaukee County, an organization that provides assistance for homeless families and women throughout the area, she struggled to find a sympathetic landlord.

She filled out hundreds of housing applications in the four months she was without permanent residence, only to meet resistance in almost every case.

“People judge you when you tell them you’re staying in a homeless shelter. They look down on you,” Zimdars explained. “You could have all the money that you need, but as soon as you say you’re in a homeless shelter, you get the door shut in your face.”

Dealing with imminent risk

The problem of finding affordable housing — or continuing to be able to afford it — is not one relegated to those who find themselves literally homeless, however.

Barbara Fischer, executive director of Advocates of Ozaukee, explained that the majority of housing calls her organization receives are from people who are in danger of not being able to pay their next month’s rent or mortgage payment.

“It’s really important for people to understand that there are a large number of people in Ozaukee County clearly a paycheck away from being homeless,” Fischer said.

Fischer said the reason Advocates or other organizations immediately pitch in so the family can stay in their current residence is often because otherwise, they would have to be moved outside the county.

There are not a large number of rental units available in Ozaukee County, Fischer explained. Because those units are not cheap, families that can afford it tend to stay put for a while once they move in, leaving the county with one of the lowest apartment turnover rates.

Long wait times for low-income residences

Even the few government-subsidized housing options in the area have fairly long waiting lists: at least six months for Country Harbor Apartments in Saukville, six months to a year for Westport Meadows in Port Washington and at least a year for Cedarburg’s Fischer Terrace.

Those whose incomes qualify can also take advantage of Section 8 housing, or the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But according to Kay Hanna of Horizon Management Group, which manages Section 8 in Ozaukee County, some landlords in the area “are leery, because if it has anything to do with the myriad of paperwork that most government programs include, they tend to shy away.”

The waiting list for the county’s Section 8 housing is between three and four years long.

Zimdars is still on that list, but currently pays just shy of $800 per month for an apartment with Cary Rentals in Port Washington.

Family Promise of Ozaukee County Executive Director Kathleen Christenson Fisher and the rest of the Family Promise staff wrote Zimdars a letter of recommendation to obtain that housing.

“It’s oftentimes difficult for (clients) to get an apartment when they have a history of past eviction, or they have limited income,” Fisher said. “So we can offer them support through rent assistance and advocacy with the landlord.”

No firm plans from local government

Officials from three major municipalities in Ozaukee County all said there are no active plans for more affordable housing in their communities.

Randy Tetzlaff, director of planning and development in the city of Port Washington, said although there are no “aggressive” programs in place to create more affordable housing, their zoning code allows for small lots and they have “historically been open” to those options.

In Grafton, director of planning and development Jessica Wolff said the village is responding to what the market proposes, like 227 market-rate senior apartments and housing, but has no plans specifically for affordable housing.

And in Cedarburg, City Planner Jon Censky said he took an online course earlier this year titled “Fair Housing 101” and the information he learned from that course is available to residents at City Hall.

But both Family Promise and Advocates of Ozaukee County are participants in the Ozaukee County Homeless Coalition, which is working — slowly but surely — to advocate for more affordable housing in the area.

“It’s probably the hardest thing we’ve taken on that we will do,” Fischer said, adding that it is one of the coalition’s long-term goals.

Zimdars said that if she had won the lottery, she would have immediately put up more housing that everyone can afford.

“I would have built a whole community, just across the street from St. Vincent de Paul, all low-income housing,” Zimdars said. “If I had $340 million, that’s what I would have done. That’s what somebody needs to do.”

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