Donations, Big and Small, Help Busy Shelters Serve the Homeless

Jan 8, 2014

The head of Guest House is grateful that families, such as the one that sent this gift card and note, educate children about the needs of the homeless population.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Milwaukee’s shelters were crowded during the recent arctic blast, and are likely to remain in demand.

One that’s been full is Guest House, on the near west side. It serves single men and is nearly always at capacity, with 86 per night. Lately, both the shelter and its overflow space, which sleeps up to 20 more men, have been full.

A 46-year-old calling himself Tony Lee showed up at the door last week. He wasn’t the only one.

“On my first day I showed up, this one guy – he was literally crying to get in, you know. I was about ready to give him my spot if he didn’t get in. But luckily he got in,” Lee says.

Lee says until now, he’s avoided living outside by staying with family and friends.

James Scott has been staying at Guest House for about a month and a half. But he says in the past, he did live outdoors during bitterly cold weather.

The 51-year-old says experience taught him how to survive.

“I know the places that I can go eat, I know the place I can go take a shower, I know places I can go to get clothing, and so on and so forth, you know. So by me knowing this, having this information, it wasn’t so hard on myself like it is on other people,” Scott says.

Scott says he knows some who are skeptical of what shelters offer.

“I think by the Guest House allowing some of those people to come in because of the cold, that some of those peoples will think different from what they usually think. You know, there is some hope, we do got peoples who care and peoples who will help us,” Scott says.

Guest House on the near west side is always full. In winter, it becomes more crowded, as the shelter opens an overflow space
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Some who have been reluctant to ask for help do change their minds. Cindy Krahenbuhl works to accommodate those who have come in, out of the cold. She’s executive director of Guest House, and says it’s been bustling.

“We have a very small kitchen, and that adds up when you’re feeding over 100 people a day, three times a day,” Krahenbuhl says.

She was touched by a contribution that arrived on Tuesday. She pulls a $50 gift card out of her pocket.

A family sent it, along with a note written by a small child, saying the gift card is meant to be spent at the grocery store.

“It says I hope you like the food. I know it’s past Christmas, but Merry Christmas, anyways,” Krahenbuhl says.

Donations have been helping Guest House keep up with other necessities, as well.

“An anonymous donor gave us a cash donation to go out and get new winter coats, so so far we’ve gotten about 40 in, and we got a little more shopping to do, so we hope to bring in another 20. And we’ve been handing those out to the gentlemen as fast as we get them,” Krahenbuhl says.

One of Guest House’s former residents is an artist. He painted this mural at the shelter as a reminder to men who are turning their lives around, of how far they’ve come with the shelter’s help
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Krahenbuhl says since the brutal cold moved in, phones have been ringing with offers of help. She calls the response the positive side of the dangerous weather conditions.

It might sound counterintuitive, but the demand at Guest House and other shelters actually could rise in the next few days – along with the mercury. Shelter operators say that’s because the shelter population often is artificially low over the holidays, as family and friends open up their homes. But now that the holidays -- and bitter temperatures -- have passed, more homeless people may be asked to leave.