beacon of hope for homeless on Milwaukee’s north side
It took Juliette Washington more than an hour to walk the six blocks from her home to the MacCannon Brown Sanctuary. When she arrived on this Tuesday morning in mid-May, she was too exhausted to get a number for the free food that was about to be given away.
“It’s not a problem, I took my time,” said Washington, who is scheduled to get a hip replacement in July. “I just need to catch my breath, and I’ll be just fine.”
Washington took a seat in her rolling walker for a few minutes to regain her strength before she was handed No. 69.
Over the next several hours, 100 people would take numbers on this sunny 68-degree day.
For three decades, including the last eight at 2461 W. Center St., Sister MacCannon Brown has worked to meet the most basic needs of people living in the 53206 ZIP code, one of Milwaukee’s most impoverished.
That need is growing, Brown says, and she is seeing more new faces at the sanctuary these days — many of them are younger and coming from beyond the neighborhood. It’s a sign of rising food prices, which were up 10.8 percent for the year ended April 2022 — the largest 12-month percentage increase since November 1980, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Brown’s operation is one-stop-shop for residents who need everything from a brown bag lunch to living room furniture. Brown and volunteers serve hundreds of people every week.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it is on people right now with the cost of food and everything,” Brown says. “The needs and demands are growing every week and sometimes it’s hard to keep up, but we make a way.”
The USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin is highlighting the sanctuary as one of the many organizations and individuals across Wisconsin that are bringing people together in service. Our Wisconsin Weavers Project is borrowed from The Aspen Institute, a global nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C., which started Weave: The Social Fabric Project in 2018.
A sanctuary in the middle of a Milwaukee food desert
Food scarcity is an acute problem in the neighborhoods the sanctuary serves; it’s in the middle of one of 13 food deserts in Milwaukee, a majority of which are on the north side.
“I like coming up here because food prices are just too high, and my food dollar just doesn’t stretch as far anymore,” Washington said. “Sister Brown is here to help when nobody else seems to care.”
The sanctuary gives out lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. On this Tuesday, residents had a choice of apples, oranges, tomatoes, heads of lettuce, bread, water, milk, and shelf-stable items. Brown said residents want food items more reflective of their culture, and the sanctuary is working to meet those needs.
“We are really working toward providing the foods that people will want to eat that are healthy,” she said. “For the past couple of weeks, we have run out of food or nearly run out.”
To meet the needs, the sanctuary is growing. In April, the first phase of a large renovation project was completed, including new bathrooms with showers, lockers for employees, and laundry areas to wash towels.
Seven retired nurses on staff help people with acute issues and also direct and educate people about chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Two handicapped-accessible bathrooms are equipped with showers. “This was a need people from the community said they wanted and needed,” Brown said.
Brown is proud of a dome in the ceiling of the welcome area. It’s painted with constellations, including The Big Dipper, a significant symbol for Blacks, dating to the slavery era. The Big Dipper, which slaves called the “drinking gourd,” was a navigational tool. Escaping slaves could find their way northward to the Underground Railroad and freedom by locating the Big Dipper, the most visible constellation in the night sky during late winter and spring.
‘I don’t have to think about the other stuff’
On this particular Tuesday, a dozen people were already waiting in the alley to get their numbers so they could be the first to receive food.
Brown began with prayer with the staff and volunteers, then, over the next several hours, trucks, cars, and vans from all over southeastern Wisconsin pulled up to drop off clothing, bedding, appliances, furniture, food, hygiene products and bicycles.
Brown, 76, was pulled in a dozen directions at once. She gave advice to workers. Answered questions of residents. Dealt with those who became agitated by holding her hand to her heart. She prayed. Gave hugs.
Cortez Moore, 51, is food manager at the sanctuary. Formerly a client, he makes sure that food gets to the people in the most efficient way possible.
Moore, who lives on 21st and Clarke streets, likes that the sanctuary also helps people suffering from the constant stress endemic in some Milwaukee neighborhoods.
“You have to understand that a lot of people who come here are usually in a bad place in their lives,” he said. “Maybe their lights have been cut off or it’s the trauma of death from a loved one or someone in the neighborhood.”
Moore knows about trauma all too well. Over the past year, he has lost eight family members to gun violence and one to COVID-19.
The tragedies have left him numb.
“I feel like I’m always in it,” he said. “It’s the homicides and the shootings in my neighborhood and when they are not shooting all you hear is the sirens. It never ends. I go to funerals, but I don’t have any more tears to shed.”
The sanctuary gives Moore a break from the turmoil.
“When I’m working and helping people, I don’t have to think about the other stuff, and since so many of us are going through things it doesn’t make what you are going through seem as bad,” he said.
An activist dating to the Civil Rights era
Brown was born into a family of protestant clergy in 1945 in central Iowa.
As a young person, she did inner-city neighborhood work and attended civil rights events during the peak of the Civil Rights movement. After being a rural homemaker and a newspaper reporter in Iowa for 18 years, Brown moved to Milwaukee in 1986. She has three children and was married from 1966 until her divorce in 1987.
After seeing how people of color were struggling, Brown participated in the Benedict Institute for Urban Ministry in Milwaukee and converted to Catholicism. Deeply influenced by Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s, Brown made a vow in 1991 to help homeless people,
She was invited to be part of the founding group of Repairers of the Breach in late 1991 and became executive director in 1995.
Over 22 years under Brown’s leadership, Repairers of the Breach created a comprehensive and effective daytime resource center including a free medical clinic. Her relationship with the organization ended in August 2013 over disagreements over the mission of the organization. She then was persuaded to start her own organization, which became the MacCannon Brown Homeless Sanctuary.
At first, the name bothered her though she grew used to it. “Taking care of people is not one person’s mission,” she said. “It will take all of us.”
Brown became a vowed affiliate of Sisters for Christian Community in July 2015 and was welcomed by School Sisters of Notre Dame as an associate in December 2020.
Housing and food insecurity are intertwined
Juliette Washington was hoping the sanctuary could provide her with food and assistance as she faces eviction.
Her longtime landlord had fallen ill and sold the building. After the sale, her rent more than doubled to $800 a month.
“I can’t work because I need my hip replaced, and I live in the upper unit so even when I have my surgery I can’t stay there anyway because I won’t be able to get upstairs,” she said.
Washington said her rent didn’t become an issue until she lost her husband in May, 2020, to a brain aneurism. After that, the bills mounted.
“I knew I wasn’t going to go hungry because of Sister Brown, but when it comes to the rent that’s another story,” she said.
Instead of trying to keep the apartment she’s lived in for 10 years, Washington said she will have put her belongings in storage and surrender her apartment next month.
“I will go into (homeless) shelter until I have my surgery in July,” she said.
‘I only take what I need. Sister taught me that.’
Tonnie “Memphis” Griffins, 59, said when he and his wife were facing eviction several years ago, Brown fronted the money for his rent.
“She kept me and my old lady off the streets, and I can tell you I would give my life for Sister Brown because she has been there for me when other people ain’t been there,” Griffins said.
Griffins called Brown “a saint.”
“She doesn’t lose her temper. She always has a smile on her face, and she’s always trying to help people. I guess the main thing is she never loses faith. She said what this building was going to become and it’s becoming exactly what she said it would,” he said.
Griffins said when Brown didn’t ask him to to repay the rent money. Instead, she asked him to volunteer. And so he went from a person needing help so he wouldn’t starve to a person who only has to come up with a few essentials each month.
“We don’t take what we don’t need,” he said.
On Tuesday, Griffins kept that vow. When his number was called, he only picked up toiletries and a few food items.
“I know how bad it is for people so I’m not going to take food just because its here. I only take what I need. Sister taught me that.”
How to help
What’s needed right now: Fans, air conditioners, toiletries, bikes, household items, and summer clothing and underwear for all ages Those with gardening experience are welcome to come help at the garden.
Address: 2461 W. Center St., Milwaukee
To make a donation: Go to: https://www.mbsanctuary.org/donate.html
Hours/services: 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays, offering free clothing, bag lunches and fresh produce; 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursdays for free clothing and bag lunches; 10 a.m. -2 p.m. Monday and Wednesday for residents needing a shower or to connect with resources can.
Contact: Connie Moorer at (414) 404-0600, Ext. 1