Downtown homeless encampment now at ‘crisis’ stage, Milwaukee business leader says


A sprawling homeless encampment beneath the Marquette Interchange has reached a “crisis” stage after a stabbing, increased heroin use and recruitment of occupants for criminal activities, a downtown business leader said.

The encampment beneath the I-794 overpass has swelled to more than 60 tents — more than 50 that are inhabited — since being nearly empty in April, according to Milwaukee County housing officials.

Known as “Tent City,” the camp has become increasingly squalid, unsanitary and dangerous, said Elizabeth Weirick, CEO of Milwaukee Downtown Business District #21.

“No human being should have to live under these conditions, period,” Weirick said.

“For us to continue to allow people to live this way, I believe, is inhumane.”

An update on the encampment was presented to the district’s board of directors this week by Eric Collins-Dyke, outreach services manager for the Milwaukee County Housing Division’s Housing First/Street Outreach program.

The growth of the camp has occurred despite the best efforts by outreach workers, who placed 89 occupants of the camp into housing from October to February, Collins-Dyke said.

“We’ll house three people one day and get five new people coming to the camp the next day,” Collins-Dyke said Friday.

“The bubble is bursting in terms of those living in entrenched poverty and the inflow into our homeless services system is rapidly increasing.”

The encampment, on property owned by the state Department of Transportation, was once an almost unnoticable cluster of makeshift shelters between 6th and 7th Streets south of Clybourn Street.

It has now spread west of 7th Street and south toward St. Paul Avenue.

Tents — some large enough to shelter multiple people — have replaced cardboard and plywood structures, and couches, coolers and barbecue grills now sit amid piles of garbage and debris.

Tents and an armchair sit in a tent village near 7th and Clybourn Streets, underneath the I-794 overpass, on Friday, July 19, 2019. (Photo: Colin Boyle / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Heroin use has sprung up in a small quadrant of the camp, along with consistent reports of violence and physical assaults, Dyke-Collins said.

On July 11, a 69-year-old man was stabbed during a domestic dispute by a 45-year-old woman with whom he shared a tent, according to Milwaukee police.

The man’s injuries were not life-threatening, police said.

“When you introduce drugs and alcohol into this environment it is a dangerous mixture,” Weirick said.

Some camp residents have been recruited for illegal activities, including some by a group from Georgia who travel the country cashing forged checks, Collins-Dyke told the district board.

Compassion or enablement?

The camp has grown in part because of well-meaning and compassionate individuals who regularly drop off tents, food and other provisions, Weirick said.

“Is the way we are enabling people to stay at this encampment compassionate? Absolutely not,” Weirick said, urging those who want to help people who are homeless to donate time or money to shelters, meal programs or other resources.

Shelly Sarasin of the Milwaukee Street Angels, which provides tents and meals to people who are homeless, said her organization is as concerned about the situation at 6th and Clybourn as BID #21 or anyone else.

“But we are not responsible for this surge in numbers,” Sarasin said.

“Frankly, (providing) a meal three times a week does not entice someone to live under the freeway.”

In contrast to previous occupants who were chronically homeless, 89% of the people currently living at the camp have been homeless six months or less, Collins-Dyke said.

Both he and Sarasin pointed to people moving to the camp after leaving the Milwaukee Rescue Mission.

Twenty-five camp occupants have recently left or have been asked to leave the mission at 830 North 19th Street, Collins-Dyke said.

“This is a very concerning trend,” he said.

Sarasin said her organization is alarmed by the number of people who say they choose to live on the street because, “living outside was better than the dehumanizing treatment they received in shelter.”

Rescue Mission president Patrick Vanderburgh said people are asked to leave its single men’s shelter for being violent, and that reasons people say they’ve left on their own must be taken at “face value.”

“There is definitely a segment of individuals who don’t like being in an institution with any kind of rules,” Vanderburgh said.

“However in our situation, in which we serve such large numbers of people, (rules) are a necessity.”

Both Collins-Dyke and Weirick said more financial resources are needed to address homelessness, as well as more sustainable solutions, such as the county’s Housing First program.

“At this point, we are trying to mitigate the inflow into the encampment,”Collins-Dyke said.

“To keep everyone safe so we can efficiently and comprehensively serve the individuals that are currently there.”

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