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MARATHON (WAOW) -
The weather has turned dangerously cold and the frigid conditions have taken its toll on many. But, what about those without a home? The ones who say surviving is a daily challenge? The following is a behind the scenes look of a hidden culture. As I, along with police, patrol places homeless people send their nights.
Every day Leon walks. He walks to work, to the library, even to his next hot meal.
"I just get up, get going," Leon said. "I just walk up and down, up and down."
That's because he says walking is the only way he can get around. The Wausau native is homeless, and has been for more than a year. Leon agreed to do an interview with me as long as I didn't use his last name.
"So, where do you live now?" I asked Leon as we sat down for the first time.
"Out there, in the woods," Leon gestured to a nearby window. "I have a little shelter I built, keep the wind off me, stay warm, anything so the wind isn't directly on me."
After a long pause, Leon continues. "I've seen it all. I've seen a lot more than people think I have."
He's not alone. According to the United Way Housing and Homelessness Coalition, more than 500 people stay in homeless shelters in Marathon County every year.
"On occasion, our officers will come across people in parks, maybe in parking lot ramps, who don't have any place to go," Deputy Chief Bryan Hilts from the Wausau Police Department said.
The study also revealed, while multiple factors contribute to homelessness, poverty and lack of affordable housing are the top reason.
"It could be simple little things that upset their fragile financial state," Hilts explained.
Simple things that leave hundreds of people struggling on the streets
"During the summer there's kind of a small community that live in the parks, under the bridges, they get to know each other," Hilts explained. "The bridges are a very common place."
So, with temperatures hovering around 20 degrees, I went along on patrol, alongside Deputy Chief Hilts, to get a firsthand look at what community leaders say is a hidden problem.
As we climbed underneath the bridge, immediately piles of trash, moldy blankets, and dozens of pieces of cardboard caught my eye.
"Someone might be sleeping under there right now," Hilts said as we inched closer to a white blanket positioned off to the side. "Hello! Police Department!" Hilts yelled as he poked the blanket. "Nope, just how the blankets were being laid."
That was certainly something I didn't expect.
As we moved throughout the bridge, half a dozen make-shift beds lined the wall.
"The person that made this little living area here found a box and put a couple layers of cardboard to help insulate them from the cold concrete," Hilts explained as we sorted through an old cardboard box left to mold.
While there was no one underneath the bridge, Wausau Police officers estimate about a dozen people are living under the bridge right now.
"The folks that stay here at night tend to go to warm places during the day," Hilts said.
The United Way's study shows 51% of the county's unmet needs relate to housing.
That's why a group of community leaders introduced the idea of a warming center. In an unanimous vote, the City Council approved it.
"It's just to be a stable safe place to keep people out of the elements during the winter months," Christine Ellis, of the United Way of Marathon County said.
While community leaders acknowledge it isn't the answer to solving homelessness.
They say it is a step in the right direction.
"Hopefully it gives them some hope and gives them some ability to begin to pick themselves up and move on to more permanents housing, shelter situation," Hilts added.
That means giving hope to people like Leon.
Just before Leon and I parted ways I asked him, "what's the most important thing to you in your life?"
After a long silence, Leon responded, "Surviving."
Surviving, something some of us take for granted, but for Leon an everyday challenge.
The warming center will open in Wausau on February 1st.
For more information about the warming center, or becoming a volunteer, click here: http://www.cclse.org/
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