A home of their own for the holidays

Homeless at this time last year, mother and her two young daughters now live in a Port apartment thanks to the work of Family Promise of Ozaukee County

READY TO RING IN the new year in their Port Washington apartment were Alma Duvergel and her daughters Faith, 2, and River, 1. The family was homeless a year ago, a situation that changed with the help of Family Promise of Ozaukee County. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Alma Duvergel and her two young daughters are ringing in the new year in their own apartment in Port Washington, thanks to help from Family Promise of Ozaukee County.

“This is goal No. 1 that I achieved,” said Duvergel, 29, who was homeless last year, living in a shelter after finding the Port Washington-based agency.

“I don’t know what I’d do without them,” she said of  the agency. “I found a new family in Family Promise, and it’s a great feeling.

“My life has changed for the better. I’ve learned a lot of things. Just having their support makes me feel stronger.

“I want people to know these good people exist in the world. They actually care. We’re not just a number to them. The amount of support they give is so great.”

While homelessness is not a problem often associated with life in Ozaukee County — one of the most affluent counties in the state — it is reality.

Family Promise of Ozaukee County, which started in 2014, works to prevent homelessness by providing everything from overnight shelter with the help of churches throughout the county to meals, case management, one-time rent assistance, longer-term assistance for as long as a year and resources and referrals.

In 2018, Family Promise provided 1,823 nights of shelter and 5,469 meals for those in need and received 308 calls for help. They helped 90 people — 42 adults and 56 children— with rent assistance and 25 people — 14 adults and 11 children with shelter services.

While the agency gets calls for help from throughout the county — this year, it’s on track to handle close to 500 calls — the lion’s share come from the Port-Saukville area north, Chief Executive Officer Kathy Christenson Fisher said. 

The problem is hidden, she said, because in this county there’s a feeling of shame that comes from homelessness and that makes it more difficult for people to reach out for help.

“Ozaukee County is rich in resources. We just need to do a better job of letting people know about them,” Christenson Fisher said. 

Many people facing homelessness couch surf, spending time at the homes of friends or family, but there are cases of people sleeping in their cars or places “not fit for habitation,” she said.

“It needs to be talked about,” Duvergel said. “I became homeless real fast. I never did anything wrong.”

She and her oldest daughter were living with her sister and her sister’s significant other, who fought often, on the north side of Milwaukee. 

Domestic violence was a reality, although Duvergel said she sheltered her daughter from it. But a neighbor called authorities, and one day representatives of Child Protective  Services visited. Duvergel said they told her she had to leave that day or they would take her daughter away and put her in foster care.

“It was on a Friday,” she said. “I just grabbed my stuff and left.”

They ended up at Cathedral Center in Milwaukee, where they stayed for three months.

But the family, which included Duvergel’s boyfriend — the father of her child — couldn’t stay together there. He was from the Port area, so they contacted Family Promise and moved to Port.

“The opportunity to keep everyone together was really awesome,” Duvergel said. “It finally felt like we were in a home. We could cook. We could wash our clothes — all the little things people take for granted.”

The couple has since broken up, but he remains part of the children’s lives.

Family Promise provided the family with shelter initially and resources so they could become more independent. 

With the help of Family Promise, Duvergel said, she found a job working at the Harborview in Port Washington. 

“It’s a job I really love. I love the people I work with. My boss is awesome,” she said. 

She’s found a good daycare for her children and is part of a play group for mothers and children. She’s learned how to deal with her anxiety issues. And she found an apartment for the family to live in and a support system to help her move ahead.

Family Promise helped in other ways, too. When Duvergel’s second child was born prematurely, a volunteer organized a schedule of drivers so she could visit the infant in a Milwaukee hospital daily.

“I don’t know of any other organization that would do that,” she said. 

Duvergel’s goals for 2020 include saving enough money to buy a vehicle so she can be more independent, increasing her income and finding more affordable housing.

“I have to learn to budget more,” Duvergel said. 

Case management is an important part of the agency’s mission, Christenson Fisher said.

“We address the issues that keep them from living independently, whether it’s physical needs, mental health or community resources,” she said. “We really try to connect them to the community.”

The shelter program “is really the heart of our program,” Christenson Fisher said. Nine host congregations throughout the county provide space for families, single women and women with children to stay for a week at a time. 

Nine other support congregations help with volunteers to make meals and provide funding for the program, she said.

During the day, the  parents can seek work or housing and receive services.

“It stabilizes families,” Christenson Fisher said. “Then it’s easier to deal with the other issues that we can help them work on.”

Affordable housing is the biggest need in Ozaukee County, Christenson Fisher said, especially for people with limited income, an eviction on their record or a low credit score.

“Those three things really work against them,” she said, noting it’s difficult to find affordable housing for someone making minimum wage.

“The wages haven’t kept up with rent increases,” she added.

Family Promise is looking to expand its role a little by buying its current office building at 136 E. Grand Ave. and renovating the upstairs apartments into several affordable housing units.

“People really struggle to find a landlord willing to work with them,” Christenson Fisher said. 

But for Duvergel, Family Promise has been more than just a way to find a home. She’s found a family ready to help.

“I don’t know what I’d do without them,” she said.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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