The Street Angel’s new outreach bus. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Members of the Street Angels, a Milwaukee-based outreach group for unhoused people, appeared ecstatic to unveil their newly minted outreach bus Wednesday morning. Filled with food and supplies, the bus will help the Street Angels re-engage the group’s work, filling a void left after its predecessor was burned in January.
Eva Welch, co-executive director for Street Angels, told Wisconsin Examiner that it’s unclear who burned the old bus or why. “We actually did a news interview that day,” recalled Welch. “We were on the 10 o’clock news and at 10:40 [p.m.] we got a call that the bus was burning.”
The group’s second bus was also damaged in the fire and is being repaired. No one has been arrested yet in connection with the blaze.
The incident was a devastating blow, Welch said at a press conference Wednesday. Operating without either of the buses, “It was a bit of a struggle,” she said. “We ended up having to split the routes up a little differently. There were a few weeks when we were doing one of the routes in a minivan.” The Hunger Task Force lent a van to the Street Angels, Welch said.
The automotive supplier Strattec donated funds for the new bus to the Street Angels. “This is an organization that basically, I hate to say, got kicked in the gut and needed some help,” said Pat Hansen, Strattec’s chief financial officer. “So we are glad to donate the money.” Hansen looked over to members of the Street Angels. “You guys picked out a great looking bus,” he said. “We’re very happy to be part of this.”
The new outreach bus originally came from Las Vegas. Emblazoned with the Street Angels name, the spunky vehicle sports flames painted on the side, and a back window that reads “hope dealers.”
The flames are symbolic: “Out of the ashes hope will arise,” Welch said. “Watching the bus burn was kind of like watching our dreams burn. And if our dreams are fulfilled, it means that people aren’t hungry. So it was so devastating to sit here and watch the bus burn like that. But for the community to come in and just lift us up, there was no way that we could stop. This is 100% a community-driven organization. And this is 100% a bus that has, twice now, been purchased by the community to continue to do what we do.”
Inside the bus, there are pairs of seats along one side and more along the back wall. The other side of the bus is reserved for supplies: clothing, food, batteries and hygiene kits. Driving it back home, Welch said she couldn’t believe “how smooth of a ride it was.”
Despite the struggle of the episode, “we haven’t skipped a beat,” said Welch. “There are people out here waiting to eat, so we have to make sure that we get there.”
Already the new bus has been out on outreach nights. To ensure that there isn’t a repeat incident, the group is also stepping up security. Street Angels operates out of Ascension Lutheran Church, near a fire station. “We’ve switched the buses to the other side of the lot where the fire department has a direct view of the buses,” said Welch. “ We kind of asked them to keep an eye on them for us.” The group is also exploring options for security cameras and installing new lighting.
Street Angels’ outreach missions aren’t only to provide supplies to those in need. By keeping a tally of the number of people they connect with each night, the volunteers work to shed light on how many people are unhoused in the city. In October, the group feared that the numbers were rising; members had counted 180 people on the street. About 20-30% of them were women.
Despite the disruption to their operations, Street Angels has continued the tally of people living on the streets. “Right now they’re kind of low because of winter and the hotel programs they had,” Welch told Wisconsin Examiner. “I think we’re seeing, on average, about 50 people a night right now. We expect that to quadruple by summer.”
As the numbers increase, encampments or other congregations of unhoused Milwaukeeans may return. Last year, a tent community arose in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, with about 45 people living in the park at one point. The community had steadily grown since 2019, with a larger encampment in the downtown area drawing media attention that same year. Many of the people who lived in those spaces were moved into shelters or other forms of housing as the winter drew nearer, but a few individuals remained in the park.
In Milwaukee, $45 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds were allocated to affordable housing. The funds included rehabilitation of 150 city-owned homes at $100,000 each, the establishment of a housing trust fund at $10 million with 25% going to new construction, $26 million for lead abatement in homes, as well as other initiatives.
During the group’s outreach, Street Angels members have noticed encampments become less common, with many unhoused people seeking out more secluded areas. Tent communities can also draw unwanted attention for those living on the street, Welch said “When you’re one person and you can kind of stay hidden, no one is going to bother you,” she explained . “But once [as many as] five people are there, and they’re setting up camp, it becomes an issue. And it’s usually shut down.”
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