HOMELESS IN MILWAUKEE: KATIE SILVA
Winter 2019

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Katie Silva

A single pack of chicken Maruchan Ramen noodles costs thirteen cents per pack. This means that to eat three meals a day consisting solely of ramen it would cost $142.65 a year. The bright orange cellophane wrapped 12-pack can be bought for approximately $5 a case. In fact, so many packages are produced each year that if they were tied together, they would reach from earth to mars and back to earth again. They are not healthy but what is most important is they are inexpensive, and they keep hungry people fed.

 

The traditional Japanese style noodles are carbohydrate and sodium heavy while being partially genetically engineered. They are yellow, slippery and aren’t soft but not too chewy either. For the urban poor who lack affordable alternatives ramen provides necessary sustenance.

 

According to NPR Ramen noodles are the most successful industrial food ever produced and despite their unhealthy reputation they aid in alleviating the hunger of people around the world and poor Americans. The noodles are made with wheat flour and are fried in palm oil which is 49 percent saturated fat. What this means is that the fat content in ramen helps people stay full and for a long period of time. The reality in many metropolitan areas is that the poor cannot afford healthier options other than these genetically modified, sodium rich, chewy noodles.

For some homeless populations they don’t have access to dental care. Their gums turn black and the dead teeth stay attached to the root. For them most of the food they receive is given away because they cannot eat it.

 

For Katie Silva who struggled with homelessness for many years now makes it her mission to go out on the street to feed homeless in Milwaukee. While Silva says her unhealthy path to living on the street didn’t include rotting teeth, she explains it started nearly two decades ago. When Katie ended up on the street, she says it started in her childhood home in West Allis.

 

 Her parents would yell, “god don’t fuckin’ care! Where’s god!?” Her mother beat her which was like walking on eggshells. From one moment to the next, Silva didn’t know what to expect. Her natural response to life was simple.

“God just hated some people and I happened to be one,” she says.  

 

In the past few years Milwaukee’s chronic homelessness issue has slowly begun to improve.

 

According to Milwaukee Magazine the amount of homeless has been cut in half in the past decade but there are still those who are unseen. The number of homeless has stabilized but the number has not continued to reduce. Although, according GIS Cloud in a case study of homelessness in Milwaukee, homelessness is a growing concern especially in American societies. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee there are about 1,500 homeless men, women and families at any given time. Under one of Milwaukee’s largest interstates many homeless residents have previously lived-in tents. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as of October 2019, these residents were forced to leave the “tent city” through a hand delivered letter.  This official notice was delivered by the Department of Transportation ordering they must vacate the premises. Homeless individuals were told to leave, the city of Milwaukee planned on building a green infrastructure project under the I-794 freeway.

 Homelessness is complicated and there is stereotypical image of homelessness in metropolitan areas. Those images include homeless standing on freeway entrances with cardboard signs or Milwaukee’s tent city where homeless gather under the 6th and Clybourn bridge. The reality of homelessness is that these individuals cannot be reduced to a singular monolithic image. While they share a common problem, which is the need for housing there is also the fact that homelessness also includes a variety of issues including class, religion, and gender issues. These issues include LQBTQ, felons, and people who have been evicted from their homes.
 

A majority of homeless do not include what may be considered traditional homelessness on the street but those who try to remain hidden. According to Green Doors the United States has the largest number of homeless women and children. About 84 percent of those homeless families are female headed and about 71 percent of single parent families are also women. For a lot of homeless women, it is not uncommon that they have experienced domestic violence. Their children are either living on the streets with them or they have not seen them in years and do not know where they are.

 

Katie Silva is one of the unseen homeless women—or at least she was one of many homeless women who have struggled with living on the street. What is relevant to mention is each body who struggles with homelessness faces different and unique struggles being that they are human beings with separate needs, personalities and backgrounds. Silva is one of those unique individuals.

 

Many people do not understand what homeless populations face on a daily basis. They judge their situation without having all of the details and besides being homeless that can be the most marginalizing component of being out on the streets.

 

For homeless like Silva they experience how life altering homelessness can be and then are doubly trivialized when others do not accurately understand what is keeping them suppressed. There is a lack of infrastructure understanding how homelessness operates in society, so the issue remains unresolved.

 

At the end of a typical day for a homeless Silva she walks through an open field of cut grass and behind her are two semis parked in an industrial park. She walks towards a path hidden behind some shrubs and brush. The shrubs couldn’t be taller than 6 feet, but she sits almost a foot below them. Her orange hijab covers her hair and she stand’s erect with her hands in her pockets. Her feet squish into the mud as she arrives at some train tracks. She walks over the mound of wood chips and tracks then arrives at another path. This one is less muddy where the trees cover the entire area. It’s just after dark, she didn’t eat, and she made it through another day. 

 

She turns with the curve of the path and over a small hill to a flat clearing where a tent sits. The leaves crunch beneath her feet as she unzips the tent and takes two red mangled and twisted bread ties out of her pocket and loops them through the zipper of her tent. She slips them through the knots and her door is locked for the night. Inside her tent there’s a pile of blankets and a matt made of plastic bags crocheted together. Next to her bed are five backpacks each one filled with different items. The first filled with books, paper, pens and pencils, the next with snacks, one with clothing and one with hygiene products. She sits down inside her home and breaks down and starts crying.

 

She’s worthless and less than dirt and so she sits down and prays. She begs to god not to wake up the next day.

 

After another night of sleeping only a few hours at a time afraid someone might be lurking in the woods she falls back asleep, wakes up and falls back asleep again. Each time she gets up and anxious to check around the trees and the area around her. As she wakes up for the last time her eyes quickly flit open. The first emotion that washes over her is immense pain with the lumpy hard-cold earth digging into her back. Her eyebrows furrow and her face contorts, “why am I still alive?” she asks. Confusion washes over her.

 

She has to fight and that is why she’s been working for a week at a temp agency.

 

Although, just hours earlier she was standing in the median strip with a sign on the street. The words of 40 something year old bald man in a red shirt and white pick-up truck rolled down his window to lean over and yell, ‘bitch, why don’t you go and stand on Greenfield avenue at least then you would be working for your money!’ now seared in her brain. She asks herself in between sobs, “what do you want from me?” Was she supposed to be a whore because then she would be working?

 

The truth is that Silva has sold her body to have a place to sleep and she’s dug in a dumpster so she can eat. When you have nothing to do each day but to survive you do what you need to do, and it makes you stronger. She was working and she was sober, but it was another week before she got her first paystub and all she could think about was a $1.29 McChicken from McDonalds.

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Silva and her son Michael standing in front of the burned remains of Silvas tent.

When Silva would finish working for the day, she would move around from place to place to keep herself safe.

 

One particular space is hidden in the woods on Milwaukee’s southside with a manmade campfire with stone surrounding it.

 

In the winter she would takes her socks of off sits on a white plastic lawn chair and rests her feet next to the fire. A clothesline is tied between two trees and it’s been there for so many years that the string has started to meld and become one with the tree. The trunk has shaped noticeable indents underneath the blue twine.

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The clothesline

Multiple tents are set up in a circle near a pile of wet sticks that are too damp to burn. A laundry basket sits on the dirt next to a plastic lawn chair and the manmade fire pit.

 

Silva’s friend Samantha still lives where they lived together three years ago. They met and Silva gave her a place to stay and has now been on the streets for five years. She’s a mother to two boys and is a sweet, quiet homebody who is trying to dig herself out of a bad situation. She considers herself “laid back” and says she’s “got issues just like everybody else does that I’m trying to work on.”

 

Her first night on the street she states was “pretty scary” but “it’s something I knew I would have to get used to unfortunately” She doesn’t like people in her space and it can be unsettling to not be in your own bed in your own apartment.

 

Like Silva she’s struggled with drug addiction and she’s working to stay clean while still living on the street and waiting for transitional house. But it can take months for transitional housing to become available to women who are stuck waiting and in cold winter months. During the cold she stays in her tent and keeps a giant folder with pictures of her kids close to her, but she hasn’t had her kids in 4 or 5 years, and she doesn’t know where they stay. Every 4 to 5 months she sees them when they are at her mother’s house but the relationship between her and her mom has been completely severed.

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Pictures of Samatha with her Children

 She says she, “burned so many bridges with her there is not much you can do anymore.”

 

But she has an extremely strong bond with Katie and when they talk, they talk for hours. She explains they have a “sister bond.” The two are like Yin and Yang Katie laughs and says she kidnapped Samantha one day to take her for a shower and a meal. Samantha smiles and says, “she’s always yelling at me for something.”

 

Their friendship is so strong they never fought not even over drugs. When they talk it’s like they never stopped talking pick back up with their connection like they had in the past.

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Katie and Samantha

But, when you’re homeless your wants and needs are survival based. Samantha wants a home and to have her children back again and that’s why she’s been on suboxone for three weeks and has been going to her daily appointments. She has to find $2 dollars for the bus because it’s too cold to walk in November without a coat and a hat.

 

The City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Continuum of Care aim to end homelessness in Milwaukee but homelessness does not just happen in colder months and provided temporary warming shelters does not solve the issue. Groups like the Street Angels go out and provide tents bought at wholesale and backpacks.

 

The tents are bought for about $23 dollars wholesale according to Silva and that’s why homeless go through tents so quickly because they fall apart. When a tent is used as a home its zippers break easily and they go through multiple tents in the period of a few months.

 

When Silva was homeless people from street outreach teams would come around and say, “you’re better than this you deserve better than this.”

 

When you are homeless, and you have no support system you are trapped inside of your own head and you convince yourself that you are unworthy of love.

 

They would go on to say, “I know you don’t love yourself right now. But I love you and one day you will too.”

 

Two years before Katie entered housing, she remembers a pastor visiting her with she was in detox. He began to talk about god and Silva remembers looking him right in the eyes and while she said, “Fuck you. Fuck your god. God fucking hates me. So, I don’t want to fucking hear about it.”  She eventually grew to become very good friends and now they talk almost every day. He offered her a place to stay so she would not loose custody of her youngest son.

 

She now says she prays just for the sake of praying.

 

Silva can’t be defined by her homelessness but by her infectious spirit and continuous laughter. She says she, “spent a long long time not laughing and not smiling”

 

Now that her life is good, she appreciates it and she appreciates everything. She describes her spiritual practices as “all day, every day” and on Fridays she will go to “Jumu’ah” or also known in the Muslim faith as Friday prayer. She found God when she was four months clean and thanks him for her husband and for having a family.

 

She explains that once she had a home again she laid down in the isle of Walmart to test out pillows with her husband and son Michael knowing that they would not get muddy, wet, or dirty. It’s the little moments that are meaningful to Katie and her family.

 

She appreciates life but knows that anything can change at a moment’s notice sometimes she goes weeks without seeing her friends who are still stuck in the life but is struck with disbelief when she finally does see them and finds out that they are alive for another day.

 

For her feeding Milwaukee counties homeless is what keeps her going and by Gods will there must be a plan. Homelessness has taken a lot away from her in regard to dignity and respect, but it has made her stronger.

 

Now, as a typical night comes to an end for her in her life her two Pitbull’s bark and run across the linoleum in the kitchen while her youngest son Michael plays in the Livingroom. A joke sign in Katie’s kitchen reads, “don’t be like street life communities.”

 

Boxes of Ramen noodles amongst cans of beets sit on their kitchen table for street outreach. What started with setting aside small side dishes each night at dinner eventually grew into her nonprofit called “Noor Oasis” which also means God’s lay of the land. Dozens of people get together each week and everyone brings a different dish to pass out including multiple types of meats and vegetarian options.

 

In Silva’s kitchen just above her table her cat sits on the cupboard meowing. Each night before they go to bed, Silva, her son and husband talk about their favorite part of the day.

 

Instead of pleading with God asking why she is alive Silva now locks her door at night with her key and turns off the lights. The next day she wakes up and goes out on the street, shows the girls on the streets her track marks and hands out 260 meals a week.

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