Our Sisters’ House seeks to end homelessness in Lincoln County
Tomahawk shelter helps those in need develop financially sound future, obtain stable permanent residence
Margaret Heykes, Interim Executive Director at Our Sisters’ House Temporary Homeless Shelter in Tomahawk, penned the following letter regarding homelessness in Tomahawk and Lincoln County.
“Homelessness is a complex problem, but most people aren’t aware of the scope of the problem locally,” she said.
When I tell someone that I work in a homeless shelter in Tomahawk, the most common reaction I get is “Tomahawk has homeless people?” Well, yes, we do.
For most persons, the image that comes to mind when they think of the homeless is the image of the ragged person pushing a shopping cart down the street, rummaging through trash for aluminum cans, or the person standing on the street corner with a cardboard sign, panhandling for change. In our small town, that stereotype isn’t what we see, but nonetheless, homelessness is here, and it’s a growing problem throughout the Northwoods.
Homelessness in Tomahawk tends to be an invisible problem – but it frequently is the person living in a motel, or someone couch-surfing at a friend’s house, or spending nights in a car, or even the family next to you at a campground during your summer holiday.
The causes of homelessness are as complex and varied as the individuals affected. Economic and social issues are both involved. Rising housing costs and declining earnings play a role. Since the advent of COVID-19, we are seeing an increase in job loss, and as unemployment benefits run out, an increase in evictions. Inability to access medical care, especially mental health care, also has an outsized part in exacerbating homelessness.
Alcohol or drug use can be part of the equation. A disproportionate number of persons experiencing homelessness also are suffering from past trauma, mental health issues, or substance abuse. When all these stressors come in to play, it doesn’t take much to push someone over the edge – the loss of job or loss of medical benefits can push someone into a downward cycle from which it becomes impossible to escape.
Our Sisters’ House (OSH) is a 10-bed temporary shelter in Tomahawk, located next to St. Mary’s at 328 E. Washington Avenue. Our mission is to end episodic and cyclical homelessness in Lincoln County by providing a safe temporary residence and the needed help for a person to develop a financially sound future and obtain a stable permanent residence.
We can admit individuals and families who are facing homelessness, as long as they can pass a drug and alcohol screen and do not have any felony convictions and are not registered sex offenders. Persons are allowed to stay for up to three months and during that time our case manager works with them to design an individualized plan to become financially self-sufficient and to obtain permanent housing. We maintain a strict zero-tolerance policy on drug and alcohol use. Residents are expected to help with household chores and to behave in a civil manner towards staff and other residents.
At OSH, we assess the issues that our clients face and then devise an individualized plan to break that downward spiral. We work with the client to access medical care, employment and housing. We help individuals and families to obtain benefits for which they may be eligible, such as Badgercare, Medicare and Foodshare. We assess persons for work readiness, provide assistance with resume building, and work on interview skills. All issues need to be met for a person to achieve success. Without a steady income, rent cannot be paid. Without access to medical care, a person might not be able to work. Our goal is for clients to exit OSH with a steady income into permanent housing, so they can become productive members of our community.
How can you help? There’s plenty of ways to assist, depending on your own circumstances.
Our biggest need is financial. OSH is completely run on private donations. We do not receive any government funding. Donations come from many sources – area churches and religious groups, local businesses and corporations, grants, fundraisers and caring individuals in our community. Every dollar we receive goes to further our mission.
During the pandemic, many of our funding sources have had to suspend donations, which has left us scrambling for revenue. Every financial donation, whether a few dollars from an individual or a larger donation from a church or business, is greatly appreciated. Providing high quality case management services can be expensive, but as an investment in the community pays large dividends.
If you want to help but can’t afford a cash donation, you can help in other ways. A donation of a meal or some groceries is welcome. Cleaning supplies and disinfectants are desperately needed and like everyone else right now, we have trouble getting what we need.
For the person who wants to assist in a different way, we have volunteer opportunities available. OSH has staff present around the clock. Some of that time is provided by volunteers. If you are able to give of your time, you are welcome to help out. Our volunteer staffers sign up for four-hour shifts, at their convenience. Some volunteers come in once a week, some come in once a month. We’re flexible, and the work is easy and enjoyable. (We do, since the onset of COVID-19, require masks when interacting with residents or other staff).
OSH is overseen by a board of directors, and we currently have openings on our board for interested individuals. We also do fundraisers (which have been severely and negatively affected by COVID-19) and need persons to assist with fundraising. Whether you want to give a little of your time or a lot, you are welcome to come join our team of dedicated staff and volunteers.
Even if you cannot donate your time or money, simply being aware of homelessness in the area can help solve the problem. In the upcoming elections, vote! Educate yourself on the issues and vote for someone who can help build a stronger community. Work for increased access to medical care and employment opportunities. Building a strong safety net of social services is vital.
Ending homelessness benefits everyone, not just the homeless individual. An employed person living in a permanent residence pays taxes, spends money at local businesses, and in every way helps to build a stronger, healthier community.
For more information about Our Sisters’ House, contact Heykes at 715-224-3520 or Oursistershouse.firstname.lastname@example.org.