Special Report: Surviving homelessness - WAOW - Newsline 9, Wausau News, Weather, Sports

Special Report: Surviving homelessness

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MARATHON COUNTY (WAOW) -

An update for you on a Newsline 9 special report. Last year we introduced you to Leon. He was homeless and living in the woods in Wausau. Like hundreds in Marathon County, Leon didn't know where his next hot meal was coming from. But, he's turned his life around.

"I clean offices, I clean here," gestured Leon as his eyes scanned the room. "I clean the bathrooms. I clean up whatever they need to be cleaned up."

Leon has a full time job, an apartment, he now has a whole new life.

"I keep busy," said Leon. "I ain't sitting around doing nothing."

But one year ago it was a far different story. I sat down with Leon in 2013. He was homeless and living in the woods.

Have a little shelter I built. It keeps the wind off me, I stay warm,anything so the wind isn't directly on me," Leon said during that interview last year.

But now, I find Leon in a far different place.

"I had enough sense to get out of the cold," said Leon.

Leon is the janitor at Wausau's Warming Center. It opened last year and serves as a warm place to stay for those with no where to go.

"I can relate to them. I can relate to them very much," said Leon.

Since the doors opened, roughly 20 people call this place home every night.

Especially this winter, with the bitter cold temperatures, perhaps we're saving a life," said Warming Center Interim Director, Bryan Hilts


in fact, demand was so high the warming center changed locations. Now, guests have a hot meal, can take a shower, wash their clothes, and rest.

"We provide help here and we create hope," said Hilts.

But while the warming center is an option, it doesn't solve the problem. So just how big is the problem? We went digging to find out. Just this past December alone, the United Way Housing and Homelessness Coalition reported 117 people needed emergency housing. 43 were families. That's up from years past.

"It's an everyday battle," said Jeff Sargent, executive director of Northcentral Community Action Program. The program provides services for low income families. Sargent says unemployment, a rough housing market and a change in culture are factors for the increase.

"Today,with family conflict and change in family structure it more noticeable because they don't have these support systems.

So,what can be done to help?

"Communities need to one, understand it. They need to be aware of the fact that it exists. We can't just put our heads in the sand," said Argent.

He says it comes down to caring.

"If we can get connected to something that really means something, our chances of success are going to be greater," said Sargent.

Because, one year from now, housing experts say their goal is to see more stories like Leon's.That means more people in safe, warm places and off the streets.

"He's a great example we can point to other people," said Hilts of Leon.

So, I asked him, "do you think you've made a difference?"

"I think I have," said Leon. "I tried to tell them guys, you got to go out and look for work, you can't just sit around and do nothing...it don't work that way."

No doubt about it Leon's story is one of hope. He overcame the odds. But, his battle continues.

"Once you live through a very traumatic situation of being homeless or the fragility of realizing, I have to do something just to survive the next day, it becomes such a focus and such a concern that that's hard to ever forget," said Hilts.

Will you ever forget what you went through? I asked Leon.

"No."

But, he says, he won't ever forget his success either.

There are 23 organizations that assist in the fight of homelessness in Marathon County. Many of them are volunteer based. If you're interested in becoming a volunteer, or are interested in donating money to the United Way follow these links.

http://www.unitedwaymc.org/

http://www.cclse.org/wausauwarmingcenter.php

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