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In Living

Tracey Sperko (left of center), a 10-year Navy veteran, serves as MHVI's executive director.

In Living

A photo of MHVI's new volunteer center, located at 7222 W. Fond du Lac Ave.

Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative turns houses into homes

A formerly homeless veteran had been living in his apartment for two months. He came to the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative in the hopes of finding some furniture, something to hopefully make his living arrangements feel less barren and more human.

Tracey Sperko, the executive director of the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative, was the only one around when he called in, so she picked out a couch. When she helped deliver it to the man, it ended up being far more than just a couch.

"He lifted the cushion up, and his eyes teared up," Sperko recalled. "He said, 'This is a sleeper sofa. My kids can stay with me. I haven't been able to spend time with my kids in two months."

Sperko and the rest of the small staff at the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative have tons of these touching stories. True life tales about seemingly small, insignificant items – a pair of children's pink boots, a kitchen table, a blanket – that transformed a house or apartment into something far more meaningful than just four walls, a roof and a floor.

"People are like, 'Oh, it's furniture,'" Sperko said, "but it's what makes it a home. It's what makes a difference."

That's the goal of the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative (MHVI). Back in 2008, Mark Foreman and Dennis Johnson, two members of the Milwaukee chapter of Veterans of Peace, interviewed homeless veterans at Repairers of the Breach in the hopes of finding out what kind of help they truly needed. They began with outreach into the homeless community, helping provide some necessary items and guidance.

"At one point, they tried apartments and housing, and they found out that you really need more professionally based help," Sperko said. "There's a lot more to it than just finding an apartment."

MHVI continued to transform over the years, focusing on food items and other places where help was needed. Eventually, it became the organization it is today, gathering quality donated items and bringing them to homeless and at-risk veterans. In some cases, it's furniture. In others, it's a kitchen kit filled with basic food items – a pot, cutlery, measuring cups, a can opener – many of us might take for granted.

"People give mac and cheese all the time," Sperko said. "You don't really think about if the person doesn't have a pot to make it in, to measure it, stir it, to strain it. That's what the kitchen kit is all about, giving you the tools to utilize your kitchen."

MHVI is still transforming and finding new ways to help those who gave so much to their country and are now in need. Even as recently as this past January, Sperko and the rest of the organization's board of directors had a meeting to talk about the best ways to accomplish their goals and missions. Part of the meeting addressed an emergency food pantry, which they have now incorporated into their program.

Another crucial part of the meeting was the decision to move out of their old central location, the basement of St. John's Lutheran Church in West Allis, and find a new place to better serve the community. The decision left MHVI homeless itself for a while, working out of members' homes and warehouses, but it soon found a home in an old abandoned public works building.

"The city of Milwaukee rose to the occasion," Sperko said. "They said they had this property that had been vacant for five years. So now they lease it to us for $1 a year. To them, they don't have a vacant property anymore, and to us, we have a home."

MHVI moved into the new space, located at 7222 W. Fond du Lac Ave., back in May and have found themselves growing more and more over the time. Instead of several vans, they now have a truck that can make several deliveries a day, helping more people without needing multiple return trips to the volunteer center.

They've also got several big events planned for Veterans Day, including a turkey dinner tonight for in-need veterans and a big volunteer gathering Monday afternoon with a visit from actor Stephen Lang before his performance in the upcoming one-man military tribute show "Beyond Glory" (proceeds from the show are going toward MHVI). He's also arriving at the volunteer center with a documentary crew from HBO in tow.

It means a lot for Sperko, a registered nurse and a constant advocate for veterans' issues, both in the political realm and now with MHVI. She's served on the board of directors and as the program's president, but her experience as a 10-year Navy veteran is what gives her the most power and insight into the people they hope to help and the world they come from.

"When we go into the service, it's kind of drilled into us to get it done, to do it and not complain," Sperko said. "So if you start to struggle and have a difficulty, it's totally against the grain to raise your hand and say, 'I need help.' And that's why I think there's always going to be a need to reach out."

Sperko is aware that there is no quick fix on the issue of homelessness, for veterans or just overall, but the help, small or large, that they're able to provide is still crucial for those receiving, as well as rewarding for those giving.

"It's a privilege that I get to be here and see the parents, who tell us we helped them," Sperko said. "They knew what they needed to do; they just weren't able to do it for a while. And we were able to bridge them to this place."

It's not just MHVI working alone. It's the whole city of Milwaukee that helps turn seemingly small items – like a pair of pink boots or a kitchen table for the family to eat around ­– into something as big as a home.

"Everything you see in our kit assembly room and our warehouse, that was given to us by the people of the Milwaukee community," Sperko said. "It overwhelms me, the generosity of this city. Milwaukee, many times, is spoken of harshly and in negative ways.

I gotta say, I'm kind of in the middle of the generosity and the goodness of it, and I don't see a lot of the negativity. I'll go home and post on Facebook that we need kitchen chairs, and next week, I guarantee you we'll have kitchen chairs. I know this. I believe this now."

To learn more about the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative and how you can help, visit the website.

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