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Shining a light on hope and the homeless

How an iPhone recording became a featured documentary at Milwaukee’s Film Festival

By Nicole Sweeney Etter

It was the coffee that hooked her first. After hearing on the news that a local shelter needed coats and boots to help the homeless survive another brutal Wisconsin winter, Faith (Mondry) Kohler, Law ’97, went to Repairers of the Breach, intending to drop off her donations. Then a shelter worker offered her a tour and a cup of coffee brewed on the stovetop.

“It tasted like my mother’s coffee,” Kohler says. “My mom passed away a bunch of years ago. That was how she made her coffee, on the stovetop. I stayed a little longer because the coffee was the best I’d had in years.”

She returned the following week and then kept coming back to visit the shelter’s residents. One of them was Harold Sloan, a homeless man who would change her life forever.

A New York native, Kohler majored in sociology at Wellesley College before settling in Milwaukee and starting law school at Marquette. After running her own law practice for a few years, the mother of three spent nearly 13 years as a federal agent for the U.S. Postal Inspection Office, investigating crimes related to the postal service, from narcotics trafficking to identity theft to post office robberies. “It was very hands-on, dirty, dangerous work sometimes, and I loved all of it,” says Kohler, who is now a corporate security manager.

But no matter how grueling her work schedule, Kohler made time to volunteer and connect with the city’s most needy. She became a familiar presence at Repairers of the Breach, though many residents kept their distance after spotting the badge on her belt, wary because of previous interactions with law enforcement. One day Harold Sloan stopped to ask her a question about his driver’s license. Kohler realized that her legal training and law enforcement background could help many, and she recruited attorney friends to staff mini clinics at the shelter.

“It took a couple of years to build trust with the community there,” she says.

Homeless man sleeping in sleeping bag on cardboard
Homeless man sleeping outdoors.

Eventually Sloan opened up to Kohler about his decades of sleeping outdoors. He served time in prison for drugs and had drifted along ever since, sleeping under a freeway exit ramp, keeping warm with small fires and alcohol. He challenged her to walk across the bridge from the Milwaukee County Safety Building to the Milwaukee County Courthouse and look down at the evidence of homelessness all around, at the feet and sleeping bags sticking out from under bushes. He told her about how he and other homeless men would “walk the trail” downtown from St. James Church for breakfast, to the Central Library, and then to St. Ben’s Church for dinner.

“They had this endless loop,” Kohler says. The only occasional deviation from the pattern: trips in and out of jail for petty crimes often committed for survival.

Kohler began to see the men’s interactions with the criminal justice system as a symptom of homelessness — not the cause. “We had all these programs to help with a meal for a minute, a bed for a night — but there weren’t any long-term solutions,” she says.

And that irked her. “I like to fix things,” she admits. “It’s just my nature.”

This was something she couldn’t fix. So instead, she clicked on her iPhone audio recorder and started capturing Sloan’s story, without any idea of what she’d do with it.

Harold Sloan introduced Kohler to other homeless men. Determined to share their stories with a wider audience, Kohler decided to direct a documentary — despite having no film experience. She teamed up with University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee film graduates Jessica Farrell and Alex Block. The trio immersed themselves in Milwaukee’s homeless community for six years, ultimately filming thousands of hours of footage.

homeless-1

There are an estimated 1,500 homeless people on any given night in Milwaukee. That number includes many women and children, but Kohler’s crew decided to focus on chronically homeless men. Their diversity astounded her. Some had mental illness, such as paranoid schizophrenia that made them unsuitable for shelters, and substance issues, but many were also bright, charming and well-read. She grew adept at recognizing the chronically homeless — the scent of smoke clinging to the men’s clothing from cooking over a fire, sun-weathered skin and overgrown hair.

At times the film project was emotionally exhausting. One frigid winter morning Kohler stopped at Sloan’s “sleep spot” beneath the freeway with a cup of hot coffee, fearful of what she might find and relieved to discover him still breathing. “Harold, how come I care more than you do if you freeze to death?” she asked him in frustration.

It was a relief when Sloan moved into a rooming house. Soon he and Kohler were spending Saturday mornings volunteering together at Despensa de la Paz, a food pantry on Milwaukee’s south side. Afterward they’d visit those still living on the streets.

On a Tuesday night last fall, Milwaukee Film Festival patrons lined up around the block to see the premiere of Kohler’s documentary, 30 Seconds Away: Breaking the Cycle. After the screening, Kohler and other contributors to the film, including two of the featured homeless men, answered questions.

Kohler wiped away tears while standing beside Macarthur “General,” one of the film’s subjects who found work and housing. “What we go through every day, we’re trying to look for help, not a handout,” General told the audience. “Don’t treat us like parasites.”

Tay Johnson_V1Orlando “Tay” is still working his way out of homelessness. “Some people are happy stuck in the rut, but others, we want to work ourselves out of it,” Tay said. “All we need is a chance.”

Even more noticeable were those missing from the stage that night, including Sloan, the film’s inspiration. In an interview after he got back on his feet and found housing, Sloan told Kohler, “I’m just 30 seconds away from the wrong decision and being homeless.” The words turned out to be tragically prescient when 59-year-old Sloan was discovered dead in his apartment in January 2015 from a heroin overdose.

Officer Jim Knapinski with the Milwaukee Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team, who is also featured in the film, called Kohler with the news. “I can’t even describe how I felt,” says Kohler, who was among the crowd of about 50 who gathered at Guest House shelter for Sloan’s memorial service.

Another homeless man featured in the film died from a violent beating, while another of the film’s subjects is serving time.

Municipal Court Judge Derek Mosley, Law ’95, who is featured in the film because he frequently hears cases involving the homeless, told the audience the film shines a light on issues he sees in his courtroom every day. “I’m just glad we’re able to showcase what goes on when the sun goes down, what goes on in the corners and crevices of Milwaukee,” he says.

homeless-2

City and county officials are working to address homelessness, and much changed during the years Kohler’s crew filmed. In 2010, the Milwaukee Police Department created its Homeless Outreach Team, and in 2015 the Milwaukee County Housing Division launched a new Housing First initiative, which aims to provide stable housing for 300 chronically homeless individuals followed by support services to address the root causes of their homelessness. “It’s a very unique approach to chronic homelessness,” Kohler says.

A few weeks after the documentary’s premiere, county officials announced the housing program was ahead of schedule and had significantly reduced the chronic homeless population at local shelters. Kohler has witnessed the program’s impact on some of the homeless men she knows personally. “For some of them it’s like night and day, the difference between how they felt sleeping outside and how they feel now with a roof over their heads and a quiet environment. It’s been amazing,” she says. “Some of them come to the food pantry where I volunteer on Saturdays, and to see them going home afterward gives me a lot of hope.”

To learn more, go to 30secondsaway.com.

How to Help

Kohler’s advice: “Do something, do anything.” Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Make a financial contribution to a local organization that supports the homeless.
  • Donate new or gently used clothes to a local shelter. Winter gear is especially needed, and business attire can help those interviewing for jobs.
  • Donate towels, pots, bedding and other household items to a shelter that provides “starter kits” to those who are just entering housing.
  • Carry bottled water and non-perishable food in your car and hand it out when you meet someone who is homeless.
  • When you see someone who is homeless, make eye contact and share an encouraging word.
  • Volunteer your time at a local shelter or food pantry.

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