Helping hands in hard times

Besides the virus threat, the pandemic brought domestic abuse and hunger to Ozaukee County; nonprofit agencies were a lifeline for victims
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Vivian found herself leaning on Advocates of Ozaukee again last year.  A previous shelter client, she had moved into low-income housing and had a job at the restaurant, but since the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t getting any hours. Her income tanked, and, like many others, she didn’t receive the unemployment she deserved until recently.

Nor did she receive her tax refund and stimulus check.

Were it not for Advocates of Ozaukee, she said, she probably would have ended up on the street.

The agency helped her survive, she said,  offering help with rent and utility bills until she was able to adjust her payments, obtain needed medication, provided some donated meals and provided taxi vouchers so she could get to a local food pantry.

Skills she learned from the agency were put to good use. She advocated for herself and was able to get her stimulus check, unemployment and tax refund.

Without Advocates, she said, she doesn’t know how she would have made it through the year.

“It’s a perfect example of why we’re here and do what we do,” Advocate’s community and housing advocate Charlotte Coenen said in the Advocates’ newsletter. “Imagine what would happen to a woman like Vivian during this pandemic if we were not here?”

Vivian isn’t the only person who’s leaned on Ozaukee County agencies for help during the pandemic.

And during the holidays, the need was even more acute. Food pantries saw demand increase, and Barbara Bates-Nelson, executive director of United Way of Northern Ozaukee, said that she was delivering gifts and gift cards to people in need right up to Christmas Day.

“As a group, the need was so great the board (of directors) decided it was going to do gift cards,” she said, noting United Way was able to buy the cards at a discount.  

While many people buy gifts for youngsters in need, they aren’t the only ones who need a holiday gift.

“Toys are great,” Bates-Nelson said. “But people need the bare essentials, especially in a time like this.”

Working with agencies such as Advocates, Family Services, Portal Industries and Big Brothers Big Sisters, United Way provided $8,500 in gift cards for local families.

“The need was greater this year, “ Bates-Nelson said. “And we still don’t know all the fallout from the pandemic.”

But the impact of the pandemic is being seen throughout the county.

Barb Fischer, executive director of Advocates, reported that the agency experienced a 55% increase in the number of people it had contacts with in the first nine months of 2020 vs. 2019.

“It wasn’t necessarily for people seeking shelter,” she said. “It was for crisis intervention, safety planning, restraining orders, financial assistance.”

Advocates had 114 crisis intervention contacts with 63 clients during the first six months of 2020 compared to 32 contacts with 17 clients in 2019, she said.

The agency had 169 contacts with 70 clients seeking emergency financial assistance in 2020 vs. 51 contacts with 25 clients in 2019.

Advocates had 606 contacts with 113 clients seeking counseling in 2020 vs. 486 contacts with 102 clients a year earlier, Fischer said, and 2,000 contacts with 189 clients in need of emotional support and safety planning in 2020 vs. 1,222 contacts with 176 clients the previous year.

Many of those clients in 2020 had a greater need that those a year earlier, Fischer added.

When the agency came out with those numbers, Fischer said, “we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘No wonder we’re tired.’”

And operating a shelter for victims of domestic abuse isn’t easy, especially in a pandemic. The agency limited the number of people housed at its shelter — “when we would run out of rooms, we would put them up in a hotel,” Fischer said. “But we never closed the doors. We never shut off the phones. We powered through it.”

Covid-19, Fischer said, made a bad situation worse for victims of domestic violence. Not only were they often at home with their abuser in a stressful situation, the virus made people fearful of leaving their homes. It was difficult for many victims to even call for help or advice.

And since many victims have an income of less than $15,000 annually, it’s hard for them to start over, even in the best of times, she said.

 “When the economy’s not great, people try to stay and work it out,” she said.

It’s not just Advocates that has seen a pronounced increase in need. Mark Gierach, director of the Saukville Community Food Pantry, said his group, like others throughout the area, has seen a significant uptick in the number of people seeking help.

Where the pantry had contact with about 225 people a month before the pandemic, Gierach said, now the number is well over 500.

In 2019, the pantry served about 500 families. As of Dec. 3, 2020, that number was 705 families.

“They don’t have high-paying, full-time jobs,” he said, noting many make ends meet by working several part-time jobs.

But in the pandemic, Gierach said, “they’ve lost some of those jobs. That’s forced them to spread the income they have even further. It’s hard.

“We’ve had a lot of new people come in here. We’ve had families we saw two, three years ago and now they’re back. It’s a bad situation at this time.”

Winter is always tough, he said, with the pressure of the holidays, increased utility bills due to the cold weather but the pandemic has only made it worse.

 “It’s not an easy situation to be in,” he said. “How many of us who are working are just a paycheck away from being in this situation too?”

The pantry was able to provide holiday boxes in addition to its normal provisions for its clients, Gierach said, something that is much appreciated.

 “You get the occasional weepy eye that says ‘I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t get this,’” he said. “Your heart just goes out to these people.

 “We just keep trying to do as much as we can. People are grateful, and the reward of this work is the thank yous.”

The food pantry also has started providing backpack meals for 50 to 60 children in the Port Washington-Saukville School District who qualify for free or reduced-price meals to help feed them on weekends.

United Way of Northern Ozaukee, which helps fund numerous nonprofit agencies in the area, has seen the numbers explode at the agencies it serves even as fundraising is becoming more difficult.

United Way’s fundraising goal this year is the same as last year — $360,000.

“We knew it was going to be difficult,” Bates-Nelson said of the campaign. “We’re trying to pivot and respond as in the past. Hopefully, we’ll come close.

“There are a lot of businesses that have stepped up in ways they maybe have never envisioned. It’s just been a different world.”

The workplace campaign is lagging, especially since many businesses still aren’t up and running as in the past, Bates-Nelson said, but there have been bright spots, too. United Way partnered with Kapco at its Kids2Kids holiday light show, operating a booth and selling wreaths to support its efforts.

“We were so grateful to have an event and raise some funds and some awareness,” Bates-Nelson said.

While many people are looking ahead to the Covid-19 vaccine and a return to normal, Gierach said, it probably will take longer to get there than people anticipate.

“I expect we’re going to be serving these people even after Covid is under control,” he said. “The economy isn’t going to recover overnight. A lot of these people are going to have to get more employment or simply get employment. That’s going to take time.”

 

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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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