Dennis Heller, 6 months homeless

Dennis Heller, 66, smiles while sitting in the staff office of Repairers of the Breach. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon near the end of September, and he is wearing a black collared shirt and brown pants. His gray hair is pulled back into a pony tail.

Heller became homeless for the first time in his life in December 2012.

Now, he owns Orbit Enterprise, a licensed firm that collects junk found in the alleys of Milwaukee and sells it to Alter Trading Corporation, a metal recycling company.

Heller attributed his recovery to the people at Repairers.

“They fed me, they gave me clothes, they helped me find a place to live, I bought a truck, I started a business,” Heller says, touching his fingers as he listed off each event. “And it’s all because of them.”

Heller was living at his friend Steve’s home when they were evicted Dec. 28. Immediately after the eviction, Steve decided to drive his truck down to Roswell, New Mexico, to find friends. Heller, with nowhere else to go, joined him. The trip proved fruitless and the two made their way back to Milwaukee on Jan. 17.

“It was below zero,” Heller explains. “We went to eat at St. Ben’s Church. We were talking to a guy, told him we had no place to go, and he brought us here.”

As a daytime shelter, Repairers usually does not provide overnight housing for its members; however, on nights colder than 10 degrees, Repairers remains open. It was through this service that Heller became a member of Repairers. With time, he began to volunteer a lot of his time to the organization.

“When it wasn’t 10 degrees or below,” Heller says, “we would stay in St. Ben’s parking lot in Steve’s truck.” He explains that he used a heater in the car and an army sleeping bag to keep warm.

Heller says he eventually saved enough money from his monthly Social Security checks to pool his money with his friend’s money to buy his own truck. This decision, however, did not bode well with Carmella Brown, the daughter of Repairer’s former executive director, MacCanon Brown.

“She said I was supposed to be using my money to buy a house,” Heller says. “So I told her, ‘by next month, I’ll have a house.’ And so, by next month, I had a house.”

Heller says he secured a room in a rooming house at 15th and Hadley by April. This he was able to do with the assistance of Repairers, which reached out to help him furnish the room.

“They gave me clothes, they gave me a TV set, they gave me an air conditioner,” he explains. “I mean, they really helped me out.”

Heller explains that with his home and his truck, he was able to start his business. In July, he opened an office space at 38th and Wisconsin, which he says he was able to secure quite easily.

“It’s only $125 a month,” he says, shrugging. “It’s just a little 8 by 7 cubicle, but I needed it, so I got an occupancy permit.”

Heller says he is planning on investing in a tow-truck for his business. This truck would allow him to make five times the profit he is making now.

“I don’t know how long it’ll take,” Heller says, rubbing his chin and looking up. “I looked at one and I’m going to see the bank this afternoon. They’ll own it until I can pay it back, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“I hoping it will work out,” he adds. “If it does, it does. If it doesn’t, I’ll just have to figure something else out. But again, it’s all because of these people here.”

Heller goes on to explain that he dedicates a lot of his time to Repairers of the Breach. He tries to come to the center for lunch every day, and he does whatever he can to help.

“I don’t take a stipend or nothing,” he says, shaking his head. “I just work for free. I’ve done clothes, I’ve done security, I’ve done showers. I’ve probably done everything—everything but cook.”

He says he does this because he wants to help those who helped him—MacCanon Brown in particular.

“She is such a caring person,” he explains. “I wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for her. I got clothes, I got a place to live. Things are getting better. I got an office. So I’m doing all right.”

Heller says he takes any chance he can to donate to the organization, from sausages for the organization’s lunch to water bottles to tires for Brown’s car.

“This program does work if you’re positive about it,” he says. “I’m happy. I’m doing good. I’ve made friends. You can’t ask for anything else.”

Written by: Rob Gebelhoff

Photograph by: Rob Gebelhoff / robert.gebelhoff@marquette.edu

Published on December 2, 2013

This is one of four profiles on former homeless people who found sanctuary at Repairers of the Breach, the only daytime homeless shelter in Milwaukee.