WATERTOWN — The sign on the mission door read, “Hand of Help,” referring to a charity serving orphans in Romania.
But when homeless people started arriving there to ask that the “Hand of Help” be extended to them, mission Vice President Gene Schmidt could not say no.
“That winter, people dropped off 84 homeless people at our office,” Schmidt recalled. “They thought it was a shelter.”
He could have turned the people away, or more charitably have referred them to some other resource.
But instead, he decided to take them in, saying, “I could not see kids with autism or wheelchairs being homeless in the winter.”
Schmidt converted three rooms in the upper part of a former Watertown church into a makeshift shelter.
It was well into the winter — in the depths of February — when government officials contacted Schmidt to say the makeshift shelter violated local ordinances.
But Schmidt said he felt his role as a Christian — he is a member of Christian Life Family Church, which is separate from Adoration Abode — required him to help the needy, ordinance or no ordinance.
He said he asked officials what they’d do if they found a homeless pet wandering down the street in the subzero temperatures. They replied, predictably, that they’d take the animal to the Humane Society to see that it received the food, shelter and care it required.
“How could I do less for homeless humans?” Schmidt asked.
That was about nine years ago, and Schmidt has been working to help the homeless in the Jefferson and Dodge counties area ever since, providing food and clothing, connecting them to resources that can help get them back on their feet, and simply acting as his Christian faith guides him.
A few years ago, Schmidt took over the Adoration Abode nonprofit that serves the homeless. He now is president of that organization, while continuing to serve as vice president of Hand of Help mission.
In the last two years, Schmidt has been working with City of Watertown officials to start two homeless shelters, officially designated as “men’s transitional housing.”
He now has one shelter up and running on the Jefferson County side of Watertown under the name of his nonprofit, Adoration Abode.
He also has another shelter in the works on the Dodge County side of Watertown. If approved, it would be located in the old Watertown school district Alternative Learning building under the same name.
“The one that’s open has no opposition,” Schmidt said, adding that the new one has faced some from local residents who were concerned that it would negatively impact property values.
Schmidt said he met about a month ago with a group of around 35 local residents to discuss the issue. He asserted that assisting the homeless with a shelter in the area does not actually cause property values to drop. Failing to assist those who are falling through the cracks does have long-term impacts for all of society, however.
The Watertown shelters are relatively small, with room for four men in Adoration Abode’s Dodge County shelter and another four in the Jefferson County shelter.
In addition, Schmidt has a small chapel that serves as a “warming room” during the winter months.
Supporting the mission is the new “Thrift of Hope” secondhand store, located at 308 S. Third St., Watertown. The store opened in October 2018 in the former Luna’s Market, with donated inventory and display cases and a volunteer staff.
The thrift store sells donated items, including clothes, shoes, kitchenware, electronics and more. It regularly provides needed items to people who are homeless or in need, and it also has a food pantry that’s open twice a week.
The pantry serves some 400 people per month, Schmidt said.
Addressing the issue of homelessness in the Jefferson and Dodge counties area, Schmidt said that it’s a lot bigger problem than most people realize.
He shared a photo of a girl from Watertown High School. She looked like any “ordinary” teen, but had no home to call her own.
In many cases, Schmidt said, older teens leave homes where they don’t feel safe due to alcoholic parents or violence in their household. Other times, they just don’t get along with their families and decide to strike out on their own.
Drugs are a huge problem and can lead to homelessness among the users and/or their family members.
There also are veterans, some of whom face post-traumatic stress that makes it difficult for them to obtain or keep a job and who, in some cases, self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol, ultimately making the problem worse.
And there are many people who simply fall on hard times — who lost their jobs and faced foreclosure, or whose medical costs stripped their savings and made it impossible for them to pay the rent.
Schmidt shared the story of one man who called him in crisis.
The man had been living in his car during the deep freeze of the “Polar Vortex.” He relied on a CPAP machine for sleep apnea and an oxygen machine, and could not keep those lifesaving devices charged up in his vehicle.
Schmidt immediately invited the man to park his car next to the shelter and plug his machines into the outlet there.
A helping hand at the right time saved that life, and the man now lives at the existing Watertown shelter, Schmidt said.
He noted that everyone is deserving of respect and kindness.
“At Thrift of Hope, we’ve had people come in drunk,” he said. “Never once do we say, ‘Get outta here.’ I want to show them the love of God.”
One time, he said, a man came in who had been so badly beaten that his facial features were barely recognizable.
Schmidt shared the story of another man who had been living in a vehicle. Suffering from past substance abuse problems, the man had quit drinking and was trying to stay clean, but had no resources or support.
Schmidt called on a friend and helped the man find an apartment.
There are so many similar stories, Schmidt said.
Another told of a man who had planned to jump off a bridge in Watertown. Homeless and hungry with nowhere to go, he was at his wits’ end when Schmidt offered him a place above the thrift store.
“Two weeks later, he was totally out of depression and doing much better,” Schmidt said.
Homelessness also can result from people being released from jail or prison with no supports or resources to turn to in the community, he pointed out.
“When people get out, they have nowhere to go,” Schmidt said. “They get one room for one month paid for by the Division of Jails, but then they’re on their own. It’s a sad deal. We need to do more, especially for those who were in rehab in jail.”
In semi-rural areas like Watertown and Jefferson County, it’s easy for homelessness to go unnoticed, Schmidt said. In Milwaukee, it’s easier to see, with some 70 people living in a “tent city” under an interchange at any given time.
Schmidt described visiting the tent city with his vehicle and hosting a “tailgate party” with a slow-cooker full of hotdogs.
“I was shocked at how normal these people seemed,” he said. “Some were very articulate and smart. They had just fallen on hard times.”
Schmidt said that there is a negative stereotype that the homeless are just out to steal from “working folks” and to get handouts.
He asked, seriously, who would choose to live on the edge of subsistence?
The existing Adoration Abode in Watertown is offering a hand up and a way out to people who badly need stability in their lives.
“I have seen a lot of success stories,” Schmidt said. “I have seen some of the worst alcoholics sober up.
“Every week we see lives change in Watertown,” he said. “What causes them to change? They believe someone loves them.”
Zak Awad, a formerly homeless man now living at Adoration Abode, said that was the case with him. A young musician, he had been involved in drugs and had basically thrown away his life.
But with a helping hand from caring people and the love of God, Awad said, he was able to turn his life around.
“God has changed my life,” he said.
Schmidt said that the north Watertown shelter is in the final stages of consideration, and he hopes to have the building open by December.
He and volunteers have been working hard to refurbish the building and outfit it with needed items.
It includes a front bedroom with four spacious beds and individual dressers for each resident; a combined chapel/meeting room; a library/living room; a kitchen nook for meals and snacks; two bathrooms and a pending shower facility; a separate room for the director, which would be a full-time, on-site position; and two back rooms that are being converted for use as a food pantry and community closet.
The building already meets fire codes and does not require a sprinkler system, since it will serve fewer than six people.
“We hope to get it up and rolling before December, “ Schmidt said. “The need is there,” he said. “There are already people waiting to get in.”
Yet to come are another Plan Commission meeting and another meeting with local residents.
Schmidt said city officials have been very accommodating in working to find a solution that addresses everyone’s concerns.
He emphasized that the nonprofit could not exist without the support of local donors — individuals, businesses and organizations.
For example, the shelter received a load of beds from the former Olympia Resort in Oconomowoc when that resort closed down.
And the nonprofit just received a $2,500 grant from the Joe and Sharon Darcy Foundation that will allow showers to be installed at both shelters.
Meanwhile, churches, individual donors, service groups and 4-H clubs help to provide needed supplies, from paper plates and plastic cutlery to food and clothing.
Thrift of Hope always can use donated items. Especially needed are bottled water, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental hygiene items, wipes, towels and dishcloths.
If people wish to donate to the cause, checks may be written to Adoration Abode at P.O. Box 780, Watertown, WI, 53094, or donations of thrift items or necessities can be dropped off at Thrift of Hope.