Mark Young, 14 months homeless

The day is winding down for staff at Repairers of the Breach. The front lobby of the center is sparsely occupied by members of the organization. The sun penetrates through the windows more yellow and at a flatter angle than usual.

Mark Young, shelter manager for Repairers, enters the staff office and sits down in one of its creaky swivel chairs. He is wearing a purple T-shirt and jeans. A cross dangles from a brown bracelet on his left wrist.

Mark, 50, is asked what aspects of a homeless shelter like Repairers are helpful to its members. Mark pauses, opens his mouth to say something, hesitates, and shakes his head.

“Nothing,” he says. “I can’t say there’s anything. It’s a joke.”

Mark has worked at Repairers as its manager for more than a year and was homeless for a total of 14 months before working at the center. Despite his experience with homelessness, Mark maintains a belief that Repairers of the Breach does not help its members.

“It gives me chills to see these people prodded around like animals—institutionalized as adults,” Mark says, shaking his head. “When you stay at one of these shelters, you are institutionalized. You’re going to do what they tell you to do. You have to follow the rules. That depletes the spirit. It takes your manhood away. It turns people into animals.”

Mark is so frustrated with the shelter that he is committed to leave Repairers and find another job.

“I’m in hell,” he says, tapping his hand against the table in front of him. “I want to get out of here. I’m going to update my resume and send out some applications. I don’t care if it’s at a restaurant or whatever. I want peace.”

Mark says the most stressful part of the job is working with the homeless of Milwaukee for nine hours every day. He estimates about 60 percent of the members of Repairers have a mental illness or substance addiction and need professional attention that the center simply cannot afford to give.

But beyond the stress of working with difficult members of the homeless community, Mark says his job is dangerous. He says he called the police four times in the previous week alone.

“Managers have been spit in their faces,” Mark says. “Security people get hit in the head outside with cans of beer. One guy beat the crap out of another person because he owed them two dollars.”

Mark saw guns pulled on people, butcher knives carried as weapons and constant violence in and around the shelter.

“This homelessness bullshit is a bunch of people who don’t want to follow the rules,” Mark says. “I know this because I was this.”

Mark became homeless in August 2011. His landlord changed the locks to his home after Mark was unable to pay rent for four months due to a gambling and alcohol addiction.

Prior to losing his home, Mark gave up alcohol and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He was able to maintain sobriety for two and a half years, a milestone after 30 years of heavy drinking.

Unfortunately, Mark says his obsession for alcohol manifested in another form after he gave up drinking – gambling at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino.

His gambling problem got out of hand and he ended up losing everything and turning back to alcohol. Mark says his relapse was 10 times worse than before he quit.

“I refused to go to work,” Mark explains. “I never left the house. Depression just kicked it. And to pass the time, I was still gambling.”

Mark says he was going to be evicted from his home eventually, as he owed his landlord more than $2,000 in rent. To escape sleeping on the street, Mark reserved a bed in the Guest House, a homeless shelter located at 1216 N 13th St. in Milwaukee.

It would take a week before Mark would be able to get a place at the Guest House. His apartment was locked a day before he could check in, so he went to the Rescue Mission, a shelter located on the corner of 19th and Wells streets.

“It was the worst place I’ve ever seen,” Mark says. He describes the Mission as if it is a center for “human trafficking,” where the staff are “paid to mistreat people.”

Mark says the homeless staying at the Mission are required to go to church services before being allowed to eat, regardless of the individual’s faith. After eating dinner, all the men are placed in a single shower. Mark said he shared the shower with 50 other men, which destroyed his dignity.

“Anything you can think of, it was happening there,” Mark says. “Crack cocaine, smoking in the hallways, sex in the showers — it was Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Mark stayed at the mission for only one night, but he says his experience there changed him. He resolved never to go back, checked into the Guest House and began his long recovery out of homelessness.

By autumn of 2012, Mark got a place to stay. In November, he became shelter manager of Repairers of the Breach, a place he became familiar with while wandering around “the trail,” which is the circle of shelters and public places in Milwaukee where homeless people spend their time.

He stresses, though, that the homeless of Milwaukee should not spend their time in the shelter, especially during the summer when they should be looking for work. In fact, Mark says he would support a policy at Repairers to limit the amount of time a homeless person can be a member of the organization.

“I don’t know how people can live like this for a long period of time,” Mark says. “If you live in a place like this for a long period of time, you are this. You become a product of your environment.”

Interestingly, though, Mark says he is glad he experienced homelessness and was able to come out of it. The time he spent without a home led to a renewed lifestyle.

“If you get some kind of spiritual growth in your life, you can make it out of anything,” Mark says. “I really believe it because I made dramatic changes in my life. I no longer go and do the things I used to do. And it’s because of the things I’ve seen — homelessness.”

Now Mark works with Marquette’s Campus Ministry, sharing his experiences with students and taking part in the organization’s retreats. He says he considers the community at Marquette his family.

“We are in need of deep spirituality, man,” Mark says, gently slapping the table with his palm. “We need morals and scruples. This world is so far away from that. I’m just blessed to be alive every day, man. I no longer think I need all that stuff that I thought I needed before—the big houses and the cars and all that. In the end, it doesn’t even matter.”

Mark says he does not fear the future, and attributes this mostly to his faith.

“I’m a fighter,” he says, pointing to his chest. “All that alcohol and drugs and stuff—it won’t have possession of me. Oh no, it can’t happen no more. When you put anything ahead of God, and let it take your spirit, you’ll have problems. If you have God in front, everything will work out.”

The light of the setting sun falls on the right side of his face.

“I believe in Him.”

Written by: Rob Gebelhoff

Photograph by: Valeria Cardenas / valeria.cardenas@mu.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.