Keith and Kristi Knapp, co-owners of Paradise Builders in Waukesha, spent Friday night in a tent on their company’s Sunset Drive parking lot to draw attention to homelessness in Waukesha and Washington Counties.
Donations collected by the couple for their efforts will go to Hebron House of Hospitality - the local social services organization that operates three homeless shelters in Waukesha.
From 5:30 p.m. Friday until 8 a.m. Saturday, the Knapps stayed in the tent as the sky darkened and the air temperature fell to 30 degrees. After midnight, the air warmed slightly and a light steady rain began to fall.
The Knapps braved the cold overnight rain, just as homeless people in our local communities may endure rain or snow for weeks at a time every winter.
This is the first year the Knapps have been involved in the camp out.
“We were looking for a way to give back and we decided to support Hebron House,” Keith said. “Shelter is a basic necessity and there is an urgent need in this very tough economy.”
According to figures provided to the Knapps by Hebron House, the shelters served 180 single homeless people last year, while 1,483 were turned away due to lack of space. More than 700 families sought shelter, but there was room for only 40.
“It puts a lump in my throat. Our troubles pale by comparison,” Keith said. “The homeless are living in boxcars and abandoned warehouses in every municipality. Many look for shelter along the river where there’s water for washing.”
Warmth is an issue, especially during long cold Wisconsin winters.
“I was told of one woman who rode the bus all night to keep warm last winter,” Kristi said.
“When I was loading firewood this morning for the camp out, I thought about the homeless people searching for firewood in our city and their worry that the smoke would reveal their hiding places,” Keith added.
Terry Bloom, director of administration for Hebron House, estimated there were nearly 2,000 homeless families in Waukesha County last year.
"There is a huge need for shelter,” Bloom said on Friday. “We are making an even greater effort this year to reach out to businesses as well as churches and individuals for donations. Last year we had news that someone had frozen to death while living outdoors in our area.”
The Knapps were never in danger of freezing during a one-time camp out. The front door of their business was a few steps away and the cozy warmth of central heat filled the building. But the experience did give them a feeling for what urban outdoor living means. A follow-up call was made on Saturday morning.
“I got a little sleep, but my wife and daughter didn’t get any,” Keith said. “(Between) 60 and 90 people stopped by before midnight to drop off non-perishable food donations and cash donations exceeded $1,000.
“It was an eye opener. Sleeping in a tent in the city with the noise of trains and vehicles all night, your senses perceive ordinary sounds and events as threats.
“I had options. I could leave at anytime and go home to my nice, warm, clean environment. I can’t imagine the adjustments a single mother with children has to make to live like this.
“The people who helped were incredible, from the Waukesha school system and Waukesha businesses to our friends from church. The directors from Hebron House stopped in and we had the opportunity to cement relations with them. We will definitely to do this again next year.”