Emergency Fundraiser for homeless in Eau Claire to expand services, shine light on ‘systemic problem’

Eau Claire raised nearly $40,000 for people experiencing homelessness in the community


© 2019 Taylor Pomasl

Eau Claire experiences below-freezing temperatures and record-setting amounts of snow this winter.

January saw temperatures and wind chills that creeped below freezing in Eau Claire.

While some called into work or class or closed their businesses for the day, people experiencing homelessness in the community needed emergency aid. Nine in every 10,000 people were experiencing homelessness last year in Wisconsin, according to the 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. That means more than 5,000 people in the state didn’t have a home.

Acting City Council President Andrew Werthmann started a fundraiser on Facebook that was meant to raise $2,000 for the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry, a small, volunteer-based organization meant to help homeless in the Chippewa Valley. Several weeks later, the fundraiser collected $37,091 for the group.

“I got so many messages in my inbox … from people I’ve never met saying ‘I’ve got jackets, gloves, food or other things, and I want to help. Where do I donate it?’ And I was getting constant requests from people saying ‘How can I do more?’” Werthmann said regarding the impact.

Karen Petersin is a social worker with the Chippewa Valley Street Ministry. Volunteers go into the community twice a week to hand out supplies, clothing, and food to those in need. She said the people she meets are always incredibly grateful.

“You can just see it in their faces,” Petersin said. “You can just tell that there’s a sense of warmth that they have towards, not just us who are handing out the items, but towards individuals who either provided the money or the donations themselves.”

Petersin said the ministry started six years ago and was shocked by the fundraiser and response from the community. The volunteers are hoping to expand their organization to include more communities and sponsor other area agencies with meals and supplies.

“There’s cause to have hope, more so than ever,” Petersin said.

For people currently without a home, this is a promising hope for change. Dennis Ingram is originally from Las Vegas, Nevada and moved here to be with family. Trouble in the home forced him to the streets.

“You would expect it to be a little bit different sometimes – not as hard as it has been, and it’s only my second day,” Ingram said.

He hopes money from the fundraiser can help him start over.

“I don’t think the program is exactly set up to better yourself,” Ingram said. “It’s more to take care of you overnight, so maybe they can create better programs to take care of people and get them on their feet, so they can take care of themselves.”

Alex Watenphul left Stanley, Wisconsin to find himself and start a new life. After struggling to find a job and apartment, he’s hoping the the money can shed light on an issue that Eau Claire’s grappled with for years.

“I’m hoping more people will start to understand what we go through every day – the actual lack of help we receive – and also support the help that we do receive,” Watenphul said.

For the community, it was a great way to help. Deborah Lewis is the Partnership Coordinator at Lakeshore Elementary in Eau Claire. She saw the fundraiser on Facebook and decided to give to the cause.

“I’ve always wanted to do something,” Lewis said. “I think it’s really important to help other people, but you don’t always know what you can do or how you should go about, because you don’t want to offend anyone.”

She said the fundraiser shows the good in the Chippewa Valley.

“It just makes you feel good when you can help in some way – a small way, a big way, however,” Lewis said. “It just makes you feel good.”

Werthmann said the response from the community shows that people want to look out for each other and give everyone a better shot. He said it’s shining a light on a systemic problem that now has attention.

“It also points to what’s possible in the future,”  Werthmann said. “Because I think because there is that kind of energy in our community, we’re going to be able to more long-term address some of the needs of not only folks who are experiencing homelessness, but also some of these other poverty inequality issues we have in our community.”