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Woman works tirelessly to aid the homeless

 


JoAnna Wynn started Walking in My Shoes five years ago in an attempt to help homeless people. Here Wynn shows the drop-in room that donations from the community made possible. ( Kenosha News photo by Brian Passino ) JoAnna Wynn started Walking in My Shoes five years ago in an attempt to help homeless people. Here Wynn shows the drop-in room that donations from the community made possible. ( Kenosha News photo by Brian Passino ) JoAnna Wynn started Walking in My Shoes five years ago in an attempt to help homeless people. Here Wynn shows the drop-in room that donations from the community made possible. ( Kenosha News photo by Brian Passino )

8/7 5:46 p.m.
Updated 8/7 5:49 p.m.

BY MATTHEW OLSON

molson@kenoshanews.com


 

JoAnna Wynn started Walkin’ In My Shoes five years ago to help people who were fighting to escape what she had just escaped herself: being homeless. Wynn has seen the focus and the scope of her agency change in the last five years. And while the amount of people she helps grows each day, the amount of assistance to meet those needs has not kept up.

 

Homeless in 2004

Wynn was without a job and without a home in 2004, until, with the assistance of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, she was able to receive disability benefits that she had previously been denied. It took more than a year for Wynn to receive her disability pay, but in the summer of 2005 she already had decided to help others who were faced with being homeless.

 

Walkin’ In My Shoes started with a program to provide survival backpacks, which included blankets and toiletries, to homeless individuals with no other place to turn. Within two years, Wynn started to see where people were falling through the gaps of what other agencies provided.

 

Walkin’ In My Shoes branched out to serve teens and young adults in need of emergency shelter.

Other programs included encouraging homeless people and their families to seek health checkups through the Kenosha Community Health Center and “At the Door,” a program that provided clothes, food and furniture to those transitioning into housing and those struggling to be self-sufficient.

 

Office opens

Wynn moved her operations from her kitchen table to a new office at 2211 50th St. in 2008. The move allowed even further expansion of her work. “Steppin’ Up” provides grandparents and other relatives raising children with resources to help care for young ones. The move also expanded the focus on youth for Wynn.

 

The basement of the new office is a teen drop-in center, through which referrals to other agencies and assistance in finding housing are offered. The center includes laundry facilities, computers, entertainment and toys for kids. “We’re really proud of what’s being done here,” Wynn said. “We need to give our kids somewhere to go if they’re falling through the cracks with different agencies. We can’t have those kids out there alone.”

 

Training offered

Programs to provide job skill training and to discuss personal values and morals have also recently started for teens. Wynn said businesses working with the job skills program have been impressed with the response and the interest from teens at the center. “We’re training kids to break the cycle of poverty,” Wynn said. “We’re taking a new approach on curing homelessness.” She still provides the homeless survival kits. And she continues to collect donations of clothes and shoes for those in need.

 

Volunteers help

The staff of Walkin’ In My Shoes remains only Wynn, though she said she is extremely thankful for the work of volunteers, such as members of the Kenosha First Assembly of God Church who put together the drop-in center, and donations, such as underwear donated by Jockey.

 

Walkin’ In My Shoes has also partnered with many other agencies in town, but Wynn said more collaboration would be needed to tackle the overall homeless problem in Kenosha. “The only way to fix this is for all agencies to come together and work on a referral system,” Wynn said. “We just need to fix a lot of cracks.” Wynn said the local agencies could also seek one large grant to help the area as a whole if more collaboration happens.

 

Getting help

Much of Wynn’s work also involves referring people to the agency that can best help them. And that work often means making sure people are not just seeking to use as many agencies as possible to receive handouts, but to get actual, direct help. “If you want to end homelessness, the first thing you have to do is not just offer handouts,” Wynn said. “The only way we can help is to get people the help they need to be self-sufficient.”

 

New goals, obstacles

Wynn hopes her next step can be a homeless youth academy, which would provide housing for up to four years to allow youths to remain in high school and earn their diploma. “We’re seeing more and more kids that want to go to college,” Wynn said. But with those goals comes the reality Wynn faces.

 

The needs of people who are homeless or facing homelessness continue to grow, but the economic strain on all people has hurt donations.Wynn does not take a salary and has been running the agency’s programs using her retirement fund. And the agency is starting to strain its new home. “We’ve grown out of this building already,” Wynn said. “We’ve been struggling financially for a long time. It’s hard to keep up the rent and keep the lights on. We need the community’s support.”

 

Hundreds aided

Wynn estimates that more than 500 people have been able to escape homelessness through the work of her and other area agencies in the last five years. Wynn worked with 182 people in the last year, 27 of whom are teens or young adults. As Wynn pulls out their files, she says the folders represent real people in need of help.

“I get upset when my efforts fail,” Wynn said.

 

More help needed

Wynn would like nothing else than to continue and expand her work of the last five years, but she knows she’ll need more help to do so. “I don’t want to leave this when there is so much help needed,” Wynn said. For now, Wynn said she feels confident she lived up to her goals of five years ago to keep people from losing the battle against homelessness — a battle she was able to win. “I opened up the agency to help everybody,” Wynn said. “If nothing else, I think we’ve made our presence known in Kenosha.”

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Last Modified: 12/06/2011