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Offering homeless teens place to lay their heads

Walkin’ In My Shoes helps many, struggles to meet growing needs

 

By JESSICA STEPHEN: jstephen@kenoshanews.com

 

Homeless center Status on hold

 

It’s not unheard of for grant applications to come down to the deadline. But in the four years that JoAnna Wynn has received grants for her homeless youth drop-in center Walkin’ In My Shoes, she always submitted her applications in plenty of time to be considered. This year, Wynn was helping a client at the Kenosha County Job Center when the deadline for a $5,000 Community Development Block came and went. “It’s really my fault,” said Wynn, 57, of Kenosha. “I had to make a decision, and that decision was: I have to be with this child at the Job Center.” It’s a story Wynn understands people might dismiss. But it’s one she hopes they will forgive. “It’s my responsibility. I put other needs before my own, and it’s going to cost me,” said Wynn, who cried as she talked about losing the grant, which she had used to pay for survival backpacks full of food, toiletries and other supplies, including a sleeping bag. “We needed that money. I can’t provide that service without that funding, without a small foundation grant or community funding.”

 

It began in 1995

 

Wynn started Walkin’ In My Shoes in 1995 to raise awareness about homelessness. It’s a calling she embraced after medical bills left her financially tapped and without a home nearly 10 years ago. Since then, what started as a grassroots effort talking to people on buses, street corners and wherever she found folks in need has grown into a formal non-profit, albeit a small one. Wynn lives on her retirement. And no one at Walkin’ In My Shoes, including Wynn, earns a salary for their work. And Wynn relies on grants and her own money to keep the center’s building at 2211 50th St. in Kenosha, where teenagers and young adults without homes gather every day to check e-mail, search for jobs and do laundry. “If donations don’t come in, I pay the center’s light bill. Sometimes, I have to go into my food money. I just can’t have my doors close,” Wynn said. That, she said, is because the people Wynn serves, teenagers and young adults mostly, wouldn’t have a place to go if her office were closed. As of December, about 50 teenagers were on waiting lists for homeless youth services. “We do this to get kids out of the parks, off the streets, out of the Job Center,” Wynn said.

 

Teens must help themselves

 

Wynn is adamant about helping the young people who come to her center. But she is equally emphatic about making sure they can help themselves. “I don’t want these kids dependent on welfare,” Wynn said. “We are, as a society, just handing them so many freebies, like free cell phones, free rent for two years. I believe they should earn that and stand on their own two feet, so they will not look for someone to support them. I want these kids to only depend on themselves.” Her clients want that, too. “My life was lovely when I had a job. I didn’t have to ask my mom for nothing. That feels good,” said, Shay, a 20-year-old woman who did not want her last name used. Lese, also 20, agreed. “I want my apartment. I want to go to school. I want to make something out of myself,” said Lese, who is working on her GED and also didn’t want her full name used. Both girls said volunteering — Wynn has her clients volunteer at the center and elsewhere in the community — helped them reinforce their goals, look beyond themselves and consider how their educations and jobs and choices might influence the community. For Wynn, education is a big part of that. “We have future nurses here,” Wynn said. “We have a girl going to school to be a psychiatrist. Some with children. Some not. In fact, most don’t have children.” Jobs are also part of Wynn’s plan. She works with local businesses to find internships and entry-level jobs, $8- and $10-an-hour opportunities that lay the foundation for the future, not just a way to pay the electric bill. “I always believe that if we want to break the cycle of poverty, we need to help these kids get where they want to be. They can do an internship and work their way up, like it used to be,” she said. “I don’t want to see the kids get food stamps and then sell them — and I’ve seen that happen. I don’t want them to have that poverty mentality,” Wynn continued. “These kids need more than food stamps. I’m trying to open doors for them. I don’t think any of them are looking for us to support them. They work. They go to college. But there is a missing piece to that. Where are they going to lay their heads after school?”

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Last Modified: 12/06/2011