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Community Advocates’ Central Role

As the seasons change, Milwaukee County’s low-income families usually see one set of life’s challenges replaced by another. From keeping warm in winter, to keeping safe in summer, there isn’t a time when their lives cannot become upended by homelessness, hunger, violence, or any number of other hurdles. Throughout the year, local nonprofit Community Advocates offers an umbrella of services to help tens of thousands of individuals meet their basic needs. A central part of its approach is to reduce as many barriers as possible to its services, so when the agency began to plan a new downtown office, it sought to ensure access for all its constituents.

“Our belief is that just because you’re poor, it doesn’t mean you have to be treated poorly,” said Joe Volk, CEO of Community Advocates. “We want each of our clients to feel valued, and this space offers both comfort and dignity. The difference it has made for both clients and staff has been clear: we value and respect you.”

A two-year, $250,000 Foundation grant is helping Community Advocates in a $4 million campaign to create a centrally located, user-friendly space for clients, while giving it more room for its services, which have only grown in the light of the highest poverty rate in more than a generation.

A Warm, Welcoming Space

Prior to the move, Community Advocates occupied a patchwork of storefronts and offices on Fond du Lac Avenue on the city’s northwest side. There, a cramped layout left limited room for clients to wait, while employees had to step outside to move from one set of offices to another. The new building is a marked contrast, from its location on James Lovell Street close to Wisconsin Avenue bus lines, to the ADA accessible, bank-teller-style counters that welcome visitors and afford a high level of professionalism as they check in.

As they wait to meet with a case manager, clients now enjoy a naturally lit, high ceilinged waiting area, which includes a partitioned play space for clients’ children. For one-on-one meetings, there is a row of small, private interview rooms where clients can be assured of confidentiality.

Clients have noted the difference. Northwest side resident Kelly Hicks found the new space to be far more welcoming than the old office as she waited to apply for heating assistance. Nearby, her four-year-old son Elijah doodled on the chalkboard walls that surround the children’s area.

“This is definitely more of a business-like atmosphere than the old office,” she said. “It’s the little touches that make it easier as you wait for your name to be called.”

A certified nursing assistant and single mother, Hicks said the uncertainty of getting enough work hours led her to apply for heating assistance program. Each spring, Community Advocates helps hundreds of struggling families try to hold off utility disconnections due to past due bills.

Many Clients, Many Needs

Community Advocates has been meeting basic needs for the better part of four decades, and the new office is giving it the ability to enhance its growing stable of programs. For example, it has used the space to house the Bottomless Closet, its program to help clients who need interview-ready clothes, while it also added flexible counseling rooms for those trying to cope with domestic violence.

While a good deal of its client interaction takes place in the field, it keeps an open-door policy for its office visits, so an appointment is not required to meet with a counselor. For its families, it takes just one missed bus transfer or a sick child to miss an appointment and delay receiving help.

“We see our clients make tremendous efforts to reach us, so we want to be there for them,” Volk said. “This new home represents our commitment to helping them build more promising futures.”

Community Advocates has been a longtime Foundation partner, receiving $471,000 in total grants since 1993 in support of efforts addressing addiction, mental illness, and domestic violence. In addition, its work on those issues is supported by policy-related efforts to ensure that the needs of all low-income families are met by the systems intended to help them get past their challenges.