RACINE — Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization is the largest homeless shelter in Racine County, and it’s “bursting at the seams” with the number of people it is serving and it is running at a considerable deficit.
The shelter has been operating at or over capacity for nearly 10 consecutive months and has a $25,000 monthly shortfall as a result, according to HALO Executive Director Gai Lorenzen and Continuum of Care President Ron Thomas.
“That’s a crisis,” Thomas said.
HALO, housed inside a 23,000-square-foot former warehouse at 2000 DeKoven Ave., can accommodate 120 people nightly — 60 women and children, and 60 men. Thomas said last week that the women and children’s side was full, while there were more than 100 men sleeping on the other.
When there aren’t enough beds, residents sleep on 6-inch-thick cushioned mats in the dining rooms. Lorenzen attests that the mats are comfortable, but not preferable.
“That’s the norm,” Lorenzen said. “Space is a concern, (so is) the wear and tear on the building … we can’t give as much time to each individual person.”
Staffing has been a struggle as well. Last year, there was about one staff member for every 20 residents. Now, the ratio is closer to 1 for every 75, according to HALO statistics.
The overcrowding began last June, soon after HALO started accepting residents from HOST, a “low-barrier” shelter that closed in April 2017 after less than a year in operation on the second floor of United Way’s headquarters at 2000 Domanik Drive.
Since then, there has rarely been a night when HALO hasn’t been full.
“It was a crisis last year, and the situation is worse now,” Thomas said. “If HALO is in a crisis situation, then all of Continuum of Care is in crisis.”
Continuum of Care is an umbrella organization that keeps tabs on multiple Racine-based, homelessness-focused charities, including SAFE Haven, the Women’s Resource Center, Bethany Apartments and HALO.
Government funding for HALO has shrunk each of the last seven years, according to the nonprofit’s 2016 annual report.
Thomas told The Journal Times that The United Way, HALO’s largest individual source of funding, was forced to reduce its contribution in 2017.
“That created a challenge,” Thomas said. “There are not enough funds to go around to meet the problems faced by this city’s homeless and at-risk populations.”
While government aid slipped, individual donations and private grants tripled. But that hasn’t been enough to prevent HALO’s economic shortfall.
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“Our budget has remained steady. Our revenue has remained steady,” Lorenzen said. “Our costs have risen.”
Homelessness in Racine
The number of homeless people in Racine County rose by 34 percent between January 2017 and January 2018, from 194 people to 260. It was the county’s highest total since 2009 and followed three straight years of homeless population growth, according to the Continuum of Care’s Point in Time count.
“This is happening around the whole country, where all the shelters are very full,” Lorenzen said.
In 2017, the national homeless population rose for the first time in seven years, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, although it was only a 1 percent increase.
Searching for a solution
On May 17-18, the United Way is sponsoring a “Do More 24” campaign that will make it easier for individual donors to contribute directly to HALO online, but it isn’t expected to end the shelter’s ongoing shortage, according to United Way of Racine County President Rodney Prunty.
It’s not cheap to care for nearly 200 people every night while also trying to connect them with job opportunities, health care and other necessities. The number of meals served every month at HALO nearly tripled in the past year.
Right now, Lorenzen said she is just trying to keep HALO afloat.
“It is a possibility at some point that we would have to close or cut back on services,” Lorenzen said, “but we obviously don’t want to do that.”
Prunty doesn’t believe money will fix the problems HALO faces, nor would creating more homeless shelters to take on the surplus.
“We’re very invested in HALO. They are a key partner,” Prunty said.
Prunty, Thomas and Lorenzen all agree that their efforts should be focused on finding sustainable housing for Racine’s homeless population, rather than simply giving them a place to sleep every night.
“You see better outcomes of individuals not regressing to homelessness when they have their own place,” Prunty said.
Reducing the homeless population is difficult, especially when there isn’t enough affordable housing, according to Prunty. He said that many HALO residents have jobs, but struggle to find appropriate long-term homes in the city.
“There’s just not enough units,” Prunty said. “How do we create space for these folks? That’s a top priority.”
Continuum of Care met with Sister Chris Brosalvick, a Dominican nun, on Friday morning. Brosalvick is looking to become “a partner to the homeless” and wants to help the Continuum establish a sustainable, long-term plan across its entire system.
In the past couple years, homelessness prevention efforts have been reined in, with an emphasis instead being placed on care and rehabilitation, Lorenzen said. The population increase may force the Continuum to refocus on prevention to stem the deluge.
“We’re trying to stop the flow,” Lorenzen said.
“It is a possibility at some point that we would have to close or cut back on services, but we obviously don’t want to do that.”
Gai Lorenzen, HALO executive director