SHAWANO — In 2015, a Shawano community group organized and leased a vacant building to house and feed homeless people and families during Wisconsin’s winter nights. Today, the emergency shelter in this city of 9,000 is already too small.
SAM’s House is the emergency shelter of Shawano Area Matthew 25 (SAM25), the organization supported in part by area churches. SAM25 and the shelter take their name from the Bible verse in the book of Matthew, chapter 25, where Jesus directs his followers to provide for the needs of those who are considered “the least of these.”
Last winter, from November through April, 95 individuals — one-third of them children — spent a total of 1,957 nights sheltered from the weather and fed nightly by volunteers in the community who sign up to cook a meal for guests.
This season, from its Nov. 1 opening through Feb. 1, 52 people — again, one-third children — have stayed at the shelter, a total of 1,257 nightly stays, and they have been provided 3,398 meals, according to Muffy Culhane, a member of Sacred Heart Parish, Shawano, and president of the SAM25 board of directors.
SAM’s House is the only emergency homeless shelter in Shawano County, but its rented building is too small. The number of sheltered people has grown every year. The current SAM25 site on Green Bay Street in downtown Shawano has five guest rooms, and each night they typically hold 15 guests — or a few more, shelter executive director Jennifer Laude Bisterfeldt said.
“If we can fit them in, we will sometimes,” she said. “Kids don’t take up that much space. Sometimes we make other arrangements for people, but if they have nowhere to go, I’m not going to let them stay outside in the cold.”
Along with the need for more beds, SAM25’s current building has other shortcomings. There’s just one restroom and no laundry facilities. The in-take area gets crowded because there is a sparse waiting room. There’s hardly any room for confidential counseling and limited space for program growth.
However, thanks to a just completed capital campaign that surpassed its $410,000 goal, the organization was able to purchase a 6,000-square-foot building just a half mile away on the opposite side of downtown Shawano that will become SAM25’s permanent home. Renovating the space is in initial stages.
Plans for the new location at 105 E. Richmond St. include three more guest rooms with space to serve 25 people each night, plus men’s and women’s showers and a large, open-concept dining and living space adjacent to the existing kitchen, which will be renovated and updated.
Intake space will be doubled and waiting area expanded. There will be a resource center that will double as a conference room/classroom and include computers for guests to apply for jobs online and take care of their personal affairs. Plans call for separate office space for volunteers to mentor guests confidentially in the Steps to Success program, and a room for children and adults to study.
The additional space will allow SAM25’s Resource Day — a program available every Tuesday to provide information relative to employment, housing and other needs to anyone in need of assistance — to be expanded to a couple of days a week.
“We’ll have more space for programs, too,” Bisterfeldt pointed out. “Now, if you’re doing a class, it’s right in the middle of the space where people are trying to eat.”
While 105 E. Richmond will be new space for SAM25, the building has a history of being of service to “the least of these.” In a previous era it was a sober living space for those with alcohol and other drug abuse conditions. More recently it served as a halfway house for men. Ruth Paterick ran the New Era House, and when she retired, sold the property to SAM25.
A real plus is that because of its previous uses, bedrooms are already in place in the building and will need only minor updating to be ready for guests, according to Culhane.
“It suited what we need as a place for people to live,” Bisterfeldt said on a recent tour of the facility. “If people have their basic needs met, they can work on the others things they need to work on,” she said.
That’s one of the reasons Shawano resident Addison Lewis, a UW-Green Bay student, chose to intern with SAM25. Following his family tradition of volunteering with nonprofit groups, he said, “I liked that SAM25 gives people the opportunity to get back on their feet.”
A new building committee worked with the eight-person shelter staff to determine what was needed in the new space, and Dan Roarty, a Green Bay architect recommended by other nonprofits, was hired to design those needs into reality.
A first step was getting the leaky roof repaired earlier this winter, and volunteers have done some demolition work, including removing old carpeting. “Anything we can use volunteers for, we will,” Bisterfeldt said, “but where required we’ll use licensed local contractors in order to support local businesses.”
The bulk of the renovating, however, awaits state approval. Bisterfeldt is hopeful approval happens soon; the goal is to have the new space up and running for the start of the winter shelter season, Nov. 1, 2020.
Space is being reserved in the new building for a community clinic to serve low-income and uninsured patients from the entire community, not just the homeless.
Providing access to health care for the uninsured was one of the needs originally identified by SAM25 organizers. Many were in the medical professions at the Menominee Tribal Clinic in nearby Keshena and at ThedaCare Medical Center in Shawano, and they constantly saw people who couldn’t afford care.
One new addition intended to be in place when the new SAM’s House opens is a thrift store, which, along with providing job interview clothing, will provide jobs and job training for individuals, basic needs items for the community and a continuous funding source for SAM25.
SAM25’s capital campaign topped $426,000 this month. Some of that funding has come from state programs to fight homelessness, but the bulk was from “a lot of wonderful donors,” Bisterfedlt said.
“SAM25 has been supported by the Shawano community and surrounding area, including individuals, churches, businesses, civic groups,” Culhane told The Compass. “Sacred Heart Parish in Shawano and St. Martin of Tours Parish in Cecil join many area churches that support SAM25.”
Support comes in the form of monetary donations, meals and food, and volunteers, added Culhane, as well as prayers, “which are instrumental in the work of SAM25.”