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The number of people eating breakfast and lunch at the Hospitality Center has increased significantly and that has left the meal program in a critical condition. Run by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the meal program serves meals to people who are homeless or near homeless. It served 1,375 people breakfast and 2,462 lunch in August compared to 981 and 1,934 in July. The executive director, Henry Perez, also said he’s short on food, donations, and volunteers. “The numbers are going up,” Perez said. “I really don’t understand why other than the economy is getting worse for our members. A lot of our guests are sick. A lot of them have diabetes or cancer. Some just can’t make ends meet because the economy is so bad. Some are homeless. Some are near homeless. Some suffer from mental illness.” The number of people that are homeless living outside has also ticked up. Part of the increase may be due to the Love and Charity Mission and Shelter closing this summer. And the number of beds available to people having a mental health crisis at Ascension — All Saints also dropped from 27 to 16 beds in July.

Increased Need, Decreased Resources

Perez took over the vacant executive directory position after Rev. Kevin Stewart left the ministry in December. The transition has not been easy for Perez. Tasked with raising $50,000 in donations, he has managed to bring in $12,000.The ministry operating budget is about $15,000 a month. The ministry received a food grant last year from Potawatomi Casino that just expired. They just re-applied for that grant and they are applying for a grant from the county to buy food. A number of grocery stores and community groups — Malicki’s Piggly Wiggly, Festival Foods, O & H Bakery and the Racine County Food Bank — help keep the Hospitality Center stocked. But donations of food and cash have been slow in coming in. The ministry keeps the food it uses in several locked refrigerator/freezers. One has just cheese in the freezer compartment, but the refrigerator section is empty. Another has just vegetables. Collectively there’s enough food to last the week. “Everyone else thinks someone else will take up the slack,” Perez said. “I find myself in a highly critical situation.”

Senior To Work Program Hours Cut

Many of the volunteers at the Hospitality Center are guests, but not all. Perez said he has a few paid staff through the senior employment development program. Funded through the Department of Workforce Development, those staff had their hours cut from 28 to 17 hours a week. “That’s really put a big burden on us in our ability to take care of people,” Perez said. Obie Glover, one of the workers, comes in anyway because he wants to continue to help Perez even though he’s not getting paid for all of the hours he works. “We’re all willing to do what we can do, but it’s not enough hours,” Glover said. “But this man works from 5 a.m. to sometimes 7 p.m. He makes the meetings, and puts in calls to get the donations when a lot of people have abandoned ship because there is a new captain.”

Serving More Than Meals

What the community does seem to understand is that when people are eating at the Hospitality Center, they aren’t out on the streets causing problems, Perez said. For Juliann Poplawski, the Hospitality Center has kept her busy and out of prison. The 47-year-old spent 34 years in and out of prison. She was first locked up at 13-years-old when she started using crack cocaine. Having been released 2 1/2 years ago, this is the longest period of time she’s been out. And she credits the Hospitality Center for it. She spends most of her time there volunteering at the Hospitality Center. When she’s not volunteering, she studying. She’s taking on-line college classes through the OAR Program, a re-entry program funded by the Department of Corrections. She wants to get her bachelor’s degree and ultimately help at-risk youth because she suffers from a mental illness and believes she can offer a unique perspective. But being at the Hospitality Center has helped her learn how to live. “I was in prison so long and I missed out on so much that I didn’t know how to live,” Poplawski said. “And when I got out, I just lived my life to go back to prison. So from the time I was 18 until I was 45, that’s all I knew and when I was out… it was like I had separation anxiety.” But being around people like Perez, Poplawski gets a support system. “My outlook on life is better and I want something better for myself,” she said. “I never thought one of my best friends (referring to Perez) would ever be a former cop, let a lone a city alderman.” Sure the Hospitality Center offers a meal, but it also offers redemption and that’s why he’s calling on the community for support, he said. “I have a great solution if I can get people to participate,” Perez said. “If I can get 2,000 people to contribute $10 a month for a whole year… We’d be set and we wouldn’t have to do that much fundraising.” To make a donation, click on the link.

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.

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