by Jim HendersenJesse Windom

Over the past eight years, Jesse Windom has taken five rundown, former slumlord properties and turned them into livable, comfortable shelters for the homeless, mentally handicapped and onetime criminal offenders. He could now be called, respectfully and legitimately, a “shelterlord.” It all began, says Windom, as a spiritual vision. A business administration major in college, Windom has worked as a computer operator in local government and for the Milwaukee Police Department. He has worked in group homes and centers for juveniles and the elderly. His experience is hands-on, direct, and extremely varied. He’s taught and counseled, and for about six months in 1995, Windom himself was homeless. During that time, he experienced the shame, degradation and trauma that are a daily reality for many displaced people. He found that “many shelters don’t treat people with respect.” He envisioned “bettering the homeless community, touching all individuals one at a time.” Windom hails from Indiana and has been living in Milwaukee for about 25 years. In January of 1995, the building next to his mother’s residence on N. 22nd and Townsend Streets was a forlorn, vacant drug house. Windom was able to track down the absentee landlord, who reluctantly offered him a proposition. The building was in violation of over a hundred city housing codes. The owner told Windom that if he could appease the city regarding those bothersome and often costly code violations, the building was his. He chose the name Shepherd House Shelter for this first undertaking, and before he knew it, Windom was in the — well — recycling business, spiritually and physically. He had been called to minister to hurting souls as well as neglected buildings. By now you must be asking yourself: How did he do it? The turn of events Windom experienced in the first half of 1995 often resembled the plot of a feel-good Hollywood movie, but his story is true. Windom, an ambitious self-starter, was determined to see his vision come to life. He went to work shoveling sidewalks and mowing lawns in order to raise the money for supplies and incorporation fees. He distributed fliers at local businesses asking for donations. He found steady part-time work and began attending MATC, eventually receiving an associate degree and beginning his own landscaping business. Off came the boards on the windows and the graffiti on the walls, out went the debris, and with a little elbow grease and sweat equity, the building was transformed. Not only was the duplex habitable, to Windom’s surprise it was also structurally sound. After a bit of cosmetic restoration and court approval, the landlord made good on his promise and Windom’s “vision,” Shepherd House Shelter, Inc., was born. And reborn. Eight years later Windom, now 45, serves on the city’s emergency shelter task force and operates four other central city sites. The Shepherd House Shelter currently houses homeless families, and the Alpha House provides assistance to homeless individuals. Malachi House is home to women with children adversely affected by the W-2 program, and Solomon House assists women and children who have been victims of domestic abuse. Nine mentally disabled males currently live at 2963 N. Holton St., a shelter bearing the name Abundant Life. The men at Abundant Life require different kinds of support and assistance such as medication and supervision. These men are unable to live alone or hold jobs, and have been turned away from other shelters and care facilities. Windom takes pride in never having to put someone out on the street. All five shelters have been full since summer, but if someone is cold and hungry, they are let in. If there isn’t room in one of the Shepherd House Shelters, Windom is on the phone with other shelters working out a solution. He fields nearly 100 calls some days from people and families who are currently homeless or are about to be. The staff at these residences are often the residents themselves. Many have college backgrounds and once held good jobs. Any and all skills are used to their fullest potential. They do housework and repairs or light office work as needed. The average stay is about six months, by which time many residents are able to move on to transitional, group or private homes. Windom estimates the five shelters have helped at least 3,000 people get back on their feet in the past eight years. Shepherd House Shelter is a non-profit organization. Currently there is no board of directors, but a vice president and secretary/treasurer handle the mountains of paperwork involved with running a tax-exempt charitable organization. Grants and federal aid are offered first to more established shelters, which causes Windom to rely on private donors such as Jack Deluca’s Palermo Pizza and Craig Kuper, a relative of the civic-minded Samson family, who were instrumental in the development of Schlitz Park. At times when there is a shortage of food, clothing, or operating money, Windom digs into his own pocket to finance these unplanned expenses. Monetary donations as well as donations of canned food, clothing, bedding, towels, and furniture are always welcome and can be brought to the Abundant Life shelter at 2963 N. Holton St. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 3 – March 2003
Jesse Windom