In March 2020, when Milwaukeeans had begun to stay home to avoid exposure to COVID-19, a tough question loomed for local officials: how to protect those who were especially vulnerable to the virus, or had tested positive, and simply had no place to stay.
“Right away, with what we knew about the virus, we knew we had to do something,” recalls Nick Tomaro, DVM, MPH, the Milwaukee Health Department’s preparedness coordinator.
People who test positive for COVID-19 cannot stay at a shelter like the Rescue Mission, says James Mathy, director of Milwaukee County’s Housing Division. Without a safe space to stay, “they would literally be sleeping on the street, or riding a bus — and that’s just not safe for the community in general.”
Tomaro knew there was a retreat center that wasn’t being used at the Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center (formerly Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center) in St. Francis, so he reached out to Lydia LoCoco, D.Min, in the Office of the Archbishop. But as she walked him around the grounds — also home to St. Francis de Sales Seminary — they took a closer look at Clare Hall, recently vacated by the Sisters of St. Francis. LoCoco believed that the building might not be usable, but Tomaro was undeterred.
“He said, ‘Do you think they’d let us use this?’” LoCoco recalls. “The Very Rev. Fr. John D. Hemsing, Rector of the Seminary, immediately came over, brought the keys, gave them a walk-through and said yes. And then Archbishop [Jerome] Listecki said yes.” The Archdiocese offered the space for $1.
There was much to do. The building needed work, including a boiler repair. The plan also called for quarantining people who had tested positive on one floor and housing those who were most vulnerable to COVID-19 on another floor, with separate entrances and other safety precautions. The Wisconsin National Guard was called in to help design the modifications and initially staff the building. And supplies had to be secured. Tomaro and Mathy were on the site day and night.
Funding came from the Federal CARES Act, city and county funds. The United Way helped pay for food, the Church of the Latter Day Saints donated furniture, and local businesses contributed to the cause.
“Clare Hall was organized in about five days,” says Tomaro. “Our official open date was March 30, 2020.”
Referrals came primarily from hospitals and shelters, with Clare Hall hosting an average of 40 clients at a time. Many were also dealing with mental illness or substance abuse. For most, it was a chance to just take a deep breath.
“Our clients had never had the opportunity to live in a place like this, with tons of green space and community space,” explains Mathy. “Since a lot of our clients had some severe trauma histories, we could see pretty quickly a change in them.”
Milwaukee Fire Dept. paramedics were there almost daily to provide COVID testing for clients as well as city employees.
“We made sure [the clients] had long-term case management as well,” Mathy adds, noting that the goal was to make sure everyone staying at Clare Hall would have more permanent housing when it was time to leave. The results were surprising.
“The Federal government (through) HUD mandates that you do a homeless point-in-time count once a year,” Mathy says. “In 2020, we had the lowest count ever, which was 17 people. ... Our community’s COVID response and Clare Hall were unquestionably a part of that.”
After serving 325 guests, Clare Hall closed in June of 2021 when the emergency health order was lifted.
Both Mathy and Tomaro say it was the best thing they’ve experienced in their careers. “We learned that we share a mission in living the corporal works of mercy, to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit those in prison,” notes LoCoco, “and to meet these young men who were ‘boots on the ground’ and living it, we became natural partners.”
Read this and other (Making the) Best of 2020 features at mkelifestyle.com.