December, 2010

It’s Time to Gear Up: 2011 Point in Time Homeless Count

Just about a month from now – January 26, 2011 – about a hundred volunteers will head out to survey Milwaukee residents who are homeless.  Volunteers will visit meal programs, libraries, and other gathering places.  Volunteer pairs will walk the streets to identify and interview people who are homeless.  Trained outreach teams will search out homeless youth and visit encampments in our town where homeless folks are known to live.  Then all of the people living in Milwaukee’s shelters and transitional housing programs will be counted and interviewed.  It’s a major, major undertaking — coordinated by the Milwaukee Continuum of Care (CoC).

The CoC is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to conduct this census of homeless people.  In fact, every CoC across the country will be doing a homeless count during the last week of January 2011.  This will be Milwaukee’s third Point in Time Count using a very rigorous method involving a) making sure that a person is homeless before counting him/her; b) obtaining basic demographic information from everyone and more extensive information about the homeless experience from most; and c) incorporating de-duplication procedures to insure that no one is counted twice. 

Because this is a census to satisfy HUD requirements, we must use the HUD definition of homelessness which is essentially this: a person or family living in shelter or transitional housing or in a place not fit for human habitation, e.g. car, street, abandoned building.  This leaves out families that are doubled up or people who might be moving from one place to another like young people who are couch-surfing or trading sex for a place to stay.  What this means is that the Point in Time counts just one type of homelessness – still, the process and the results are essential to our community’s ability to understand homelessness and focus our resources on the right problems.

This year, the Milwaukee CoC is turning up the heat on the Point in Time effort.  We want to do a better job on the count in general but especially with regard to homeless veterans and unaccompanied youth (under age 18).  These are two populations that locally and nationally seem to have been undercounted in the past.

In order to do an even better job than in the past, we need more volunteers.  In 2009, we had 72.  In 2011, we’ll need 100.  If you don’t mind bundling up and doing a little trudging around in Wisconsin’s January weather, you qualify!  We’ll train you.  Organize where you’re going.  Back you up.  And feed you cookies and hot chocolate when you’re done.

This is important work.  You know why?  Because counting the homeless tells the homeless and the rest of the world that the HOMELESS COUNT.  And they do.

If you’re interested, take a peek at our last Point in Time Report at  If you’d like to volunteer, shoot at email to Kari Lerch, the Continuum of Care Coordinator, at  Be part of the team.  We need you!


I’m a big believer in the power of words or images to guide one’s thinking.  Sometimes these little snatches of time and thought actually put a person on a different course.  Scott Greer, the poet who was an urbanist who was a teacher, said many times that one good social story could outweigh all the data in the world.  And he was right because it’s the story that sticks with us. Not the numbers.

A few weeks ago, I conducted a focus group with several women at a homeless shelter.  The room was large, the dozen or so women seated in a circle about 15 feet across.  As I have come to expect and trust, the women were friendly but cautious.  I don’t think they were suspicious of my motives.  They were waiting to see if I would be respectful and if I will truly listen.   In these situations – mindful of the imposition of asking people their stories of trouble and hardship – I try to be as present as I can possibly be – to witness their stories beyond the research dimensions of the task. 

I asked them to tell me what it was like to call the shelter for help.  I asked them to tell me how they were treated. 

The second or third woman to answer started to speak.  She described talking to a shelter intake worker on the phone.  She related a statement the worker made that could have been taken in a lot of ways but she received it as a hurtful comment.  She began to choke up. So, of course,  I started to tear up (seeing other people cry always makes me cry).  I hear her — her humiliation, her anger, her surprise at having to seek shelter after having been employed and living in a house for many years.

While we are all sitting quietly, waiting for this woman to continue, one of the other participants, a very prim lady with her hair in a neat pageboy and dressed in a skirt and sweater, stood up, walked the 15 feet across the circle, took the woman’s hand in hers and started rubbing her back.  She stood next to her doing this until the woman was finished with her story and the next person began speaking.  She then walked back to her seat and the discussion continued.

After the meeting, I talked to prim lady.  “That was an act of kindness for you to go comfort your friend.”

“Oh,” she said.  “I don’t know her. She just looked like she needed comforting.”

The picture of prim lady has stuck with me for the last few weeks.  This morning’s story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provided a bit of an echo to the feeling I’ve been having.  See “Wauwatosa man out to change the world one click at a time” at

We can’t fix everything, but sometimes we can fix a small thing. 

Prim lady couldn’t solve the hurt woman’s homeless problem.  She couldn’t find her an apartment or a job.  She couldn’t change the past and bring this woman’s family to the door to help her out.  But she could make this terrible, scary, and frustrating situation less harsh.  And that’s what she did.

Thanks, prim lady.  I won’t forget it.

A Sitting Favre

Like most Packer fans, I have seen lots of Brett Favre and can’t remember a single time he seemed like he wasn’t giving everything he had, which was usually pretty good.  I guess that’s as good a tribute as any.”  (Eugene Kane, MJS columnist, post on Facebook12/13/10)

I’m probably one of the last six Favre fans in Wisconsin. He’s a spoiled brat and a traitor.  Now we can add sexting idiot to the list as well.  If I was his wife or his mother, I’d cuff him upside the head.

But he was amazing to watch.  So much so that Packer games would often find me off doing something else but a Vikings game would put me in my seat for the duration.  Favre’s resilience, attitude, recklessness – faith in himself – I admired and loved all that.  Watching him tackle the ball carrier after an interception — loved that. 

I loved that there was no quit in Brett Favre.  Not with a broken ankle, not when his father died, not when he ought to have retired.

So what’s my point?  Eugene Kane’s Facebook post — I’m putting that on my bulletin board — as a reminder to never call it in, never do just enough.  I think if we can give everything we have, it will usually be pretty good. And that is a really good tribute. 

Brett Favre looks pretty pensive, sitting on the bench during last night’s game.  I’m betting he’s sad and pretty uncomfortable watching the football game and having the world watch him watch the game.   I don’t think, though, that he’s kicking himself because he didn’t play hard enough.  That’s got to be a good feeling.

Where You Sit Is Important

There aren’t a lot of lessons from the corporate world these days but there are some.  I was struck by the profile of Oshkosh Corp. retiring CEO, Robert Bohn that appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over the weekend.  “CEO to stand at ease, Oshkosh Corp. has thrived under hands-on leadership, 12/5/10,

Here’s the sentence that caught my eye:  “One of Bohn’s first moves (when he took over management of the company) was to put a desk on the factory floor, where he learned the operations and production issues.” 

From this birdseye view, Bohn restructured the production line to be more efficient and offer a more interesting and challenging work environment for employees.  While much of Oshkosh Corp’s tremendous growth over the past many years is the direct result war (Iraq and Afghanistan) and the aftermath of 9/11, it was Bohn’s connection to the day-to-day that created the company’s ability to successfully manage that growth.

There’s a lesson here for nonprofit and government managers, especially those in human services.  Having a desk on the factory floor is a little harder for them but the idea is the same.  Staying connected to the day to day lives of line staff, hearing firsthand what clients want and need, and having a solid understanding of the complexity of the work all add up to smarter leadership and a better team.  I also think it leads organizations to the nonprofit equivalent of profit — better outcomes for the investment. 

Just something to think about.


I don’t know why but all day I’ve been thinking about Jane.  Two memories collide — the pungent, overpowering body odor wafting down the hallway that announced her arrival minutes before she appeared in my office and the matter of fact way she cinched up the tablecloth she would often wear as a skirt as she began to expound on some critical southside neighborhood issue.  When she came to Coordinating Council meetings at SDC, the other members would scoot down to the end of the long table and start lighting matches.  It was awful to witness.  She seemed not to notice, but she had to. 

She sat with pride, in her tablecloth, in her halo of foul smell, representing her neighborhood because, you see, she was elected to be an SDC Area Council member. She was there to do her job and she almost never missed a meeting.  She walked into meetings, the dirt in streaks on her bare legs, wearing slippers sometimes, sometimes shoes, an old sweater or maybe a filthy parka, her grey unwashed hair straight and pulled behind her ears. She never, ever bathed.

She was so ill.  She wanted help, but then she didn’t want help.  Mostly, she wanted to talk – about why she couldn’t stay in her house.  How it was dangerous to stay there.  How she had gone to college and was trained to be a scientist.  About her parents and how much she missed them.  About how people shunned her, how they were rude and cruel. 

One day she came to SDC asking for help getting to County Hospital.  She told a story about the bus driver not letting her get on the bus.  My boss called a cab and I rode down the elevator with Jane – all the while trying to pretend that trying not to pass out from the smell and talking to a woman wearing a tablecloth with nothing underneath were everyday things.

I never said, “Jane! You need clothes.  You need to take a bath.  You need to see a doctor. It isn’t healthy to live like this.”  I never said that because, I think, I was trying to be respectful of Jane.  I thought Jane was entitled to be treated like everyone else.  And in my mind, at that time, that meant pretending that her condition was normal. 

But was that respect or just my fear?  That if I pushed her to accept my help then I would then have to help her.  Myself.  Not my agency.  Not the case manager down the hall.  Me.

Looking back, I think I was hiding behind that notion of respect.  Because it was safer for me.  But it was a fiction.  A complete entry into unreality — where my practice of respect somehow prevented me from actually figuring out how to help her and let me give up on the idea of helping her almost instantly for fear of insulting her.  Totally nuts.

I’d like to think that if I ran into Jane today, I wouldn’t be afraid of how ill she was, how impossible it seemed to help her.  But I’m not so sure.    It’s hard to know.  Very hard.