Safer at Home difficult for homeless people

SAM25 continues to serve despite closing SAM’s House
Carol Ryczek

SHAWANO — “Safer at Home” can be a bittersweet message for clients of Shawano Area Matthew 25.

SAM25 is the community organization that runs SAM’s House, an emergency shelter for individuals and families who are homeless. The current COVID-19 crisis has forced the shelter to be empty but has not eliminated the need for services. That’s where the counseling and advocacy portions of SAM25 take over, said Jennifer Laude Bisterfeldt, SAM25 executive director.

“We’ve relocated everyone. They’ve either self-resolved — with family or friends — or in hotels,” Bisterfeldt said.

The shelter, which usually is open through April, had to close, as it was impossible to maintain a safe distance between families during the COVID-19 crisis, she said.

Despite the closing of the shelter building, its resources are still available, Bisterfeldt said. SAM25 continues to help place people in a safe environment while helping them with the long-term issues that will prevent future homelessness, she said. A grant through the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region and United Way Fox Cities and private donors has allowed SAM25 to place clients in motels while helping them solve their housing issues for the future. They also partnered with Salvation Army.

That approach is working for one client, “Brian,” a disabled veteran now living at the Super 8 in Shawano.

If not for COVID-19, he would be living at SAM’s House. Though the physical building is not available, Brian is using SAM25 to change his living situation. In a telephone interview, Brian said he is using the time to look online for places to live. He is also working with the Center for Veterans Issues, a nonprofit agency committed to serving “men and women of our armed forces who find themselves in need after returning to civilian life.”

Both organizations have been valuable as Brian works toward overcoming barriers to finding a place to live, he said. He has no income, and has had trouble finding work becuase of physical restraints.

“My only asset is a vehicle, which is what I’ve been living in,” he said.

Brian said that SAM25 and CVI have been connecting him with organizations that will help him with his disability and work toward income security. They provide the direction, “That can help me get back on my feet,” he said.

That kind of support is key for the SAM25 organization, Bisterfeldt said.

“It’s so amazing how people have been helpful,” she said, whether the issue is delinquent rent or mortgage payments, utility bills.

Brian is not the only client who might be at SAM’s House if not for COVID-19. As of early April, SAM25 placed three households in hotels. About seven other families are placed but continue to look for “permanent, stable housing,” Bisterfeldt said.

With sudden and unexpected loss of income due to the COVID-19 outbreak, she feels there will be a lot more families at risk for losing their housing.

“They’re struggling with the financial stuff right now,” she said. “We have had quite a few calls.”

Families facing homelessness often have other challenges that make them vulnerable in a pandemic, she said, such as lack of health insurance.

Although his situation was not caused by the COVID-19 virus, Brian said, the situation can have an impact on homeless people that others may not expect.

During the day, he said, he used to seek out businesses and agencies that were open to “warm up and get out of the elements.” This means looking for retail stores, or the library, or restaurants where he could spend time without attracting attention or getting in anyone’s way. Those options are closed now, and for someone without SAM25 to help them, just staying warm is a challenge.

“I like to be outside, but not forced to be outside. You don’t realize that if you don’t have a place to go to and warm up, it is a very different experience,” Brian said.

Brian’s lack of “permanent stable housing” was not a result of the virus but of a family situation. For the past seven months he had been living in his vehicle, “trying to figure it out.” When his vehicle was impounded, Brian reached a low point and called a crisis line for help. They directed him to SAM25.

“I was living on a park bench and the crisis worker got me back with SAM25,” he said. “They got my vehicle back — they’re the reason I’m even still here and kicking. They are trained to deal with situations like this — one of the biggest things that kept me going.”

His goals now are to find permanent housing and again be able to see his children. They video chat now, he said, but he looks forward to seeing them in person again.

Even without the shelter in operation, helping clients solve problems continues, Bisterfeldt said. The shelter has a new 24-hour phone line and staff know how to tap resources to help clients like Brian. A staff person can be reached by calling 715-851-7252.

“We found different ways to still help people,” Bisterfeldt said. “I makes you stronger as an organization.”


2020 Cerny’s Greenhouse Plant Sale Fundraiser for SAM25

Pre-order baskets of flowers. Orders and payments due by May 11.

Plant pick-up at SAM25 on May 28 from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at SAM’s House, 213 E. Green Bay St. , Shawano.

​Due to COVID-19 social distancing, submit forms online or mailwith payment. Forms are available at or at

Payments should be mailed to SAM25 at PO BOX 147, Shawano, WI 54166 by May 11.

To assure readers of the authenticity of the anonymous source, the identity and comments made by Brian were verified by a representative of SAM25.