Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles in the Humans of Wausau series, which is funded in part through a grant from the B. A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation. Follow the Humans of Wausau Facebook page here.
By Kelli Oligney for Wausau Pilot and Review
John Jahnke, 63
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Mainly from Wausau. I’ve been all over the place. I lived in Detroit for a little while, Buffalo, Oklahoma, but this is my hometown. Family made me come back to the area.
How did you become homeless and how long have you been?
I went to prison for about a year and a half or so and have been ever since.
What were you in prison for?
A battery charge. I had my own place before that.
Have you had any luck in attempting to find a job so you can find a place to live?
I did work for awhile, but I’m disabled so it became impossible to work. I’m retired now and collect my Social Security, which isn’t much and I get a little bit of SSI which also isn’t much. Unfortunately, I can’t find suitable housing that I can afford which is a problem with most of us. This town does not have suitable housing and we can apply for Section 8, but it takes 18 months or better to get onto Section 8. I was on Section 8 before I went to prison, but lost that. I’ve been trying to get my life back ever since.
I understand how difficult that would be. People want you to get back on your feet, but you need the proper options and resources.
There isn’t enough affordable housing. When you make less than $900 a month, on a fixed income, there is no suitable housing. There’s not enough funding to help us afford places.
What is the hardest part about being homeless?
It costs more to be homeless than it does living somewhere. When you live on the streets, you have nothing to do, but drink alcohol to survive; self-medicate, whatever you want to call it. You have to eat out of gas stations which is very expensive or you dumpster dive for your food. You also have to pray on the charity of other people and that’s how you live your life day to day; it sucks.
Do you go to places like Salvation Army for meals?
Yes, that’s the one meal we get a day. We usually go around noon and that’s the one meal. The rest of the time you’re eating junk food or whatever you can scrap up. Life on the street is bad.
What is a typical day like for you?
Survival. Trying to find a place to stay warm when it’s cold out. When it’s nice out, it’s not as bad. Winter time completely sucks.
Are there certain items or things you all need that you don’t normally receive?
Society has been very kind and charitable with clothing, but the main thing is housing. You apply for places, but you’re homeless and don’t have a decent income and they don’t want to rent to you. The rent prices are typically outrageous for what you get. Housing is the worst part and is the main thing that needs to change in Wausau.
Would you say you feel safe living outside?
No, because you never know who is going to walk into your area and steal your things. I sleep with a knife or a stick a lot of times because I don’t know who’s going to walk up on me or rob me for the little I have. No, I don’t feel safe living on the streets. I’m afraid of the authorities because they kick me out of where I’m sleeping. That has happened before and they told me, “You have to go!” Where am I going to go? Somewhere else? Under another bush somewhere?
What would you say is the best thing to happen to you this week?
I’m doing laundry so having clean clothes to wear; that’s the best thing. I had to pawn my laptop just to be here to do laundry. It’s the only thing I have that means anything to me.
What three words would you use to describe being homeless?
Horrible. Useless. Hopeless. That would be it.
Is there anything you would like people to know or be made aware of?
Most of us are good people just trying to make it from day to day. You don’t have to be afraid of us. Most of us would give the shirt off our back to help someone else. Society doesn’t see it that way. They see us as horrible, terrible, useless people preying on others and that’s not true. We would go out of our way to help each other out. If someone needs a blanket, we give them a blanket. If someone needs a place to stay, they are welcome in my camp and will keep them warm and safe if I can. We look out for each other and that’s something society doesn’t do. There are a few that go out of their way to help us out and try to make our lives less miserable than they are.
What was your childhood like?
Traumatic. I grew up watching my mom die day, after day, after day. She had rheumatoid arthritis and I watched her get crippled up and die; little by little. She passed away at 58. I started drinking at age 8 because I couldn’t take it anymore. I started using drugs to kill the emotional pain. I worked hard all my life and broke my body doing it so I can’t work anymore.
What kind of work did you do?
I did a lot of factory work, remodeled homes, roofing, painting, ladder work, and eventually my body gave out.
What have you learned from your experiences to help in your daily life?
Try to make it through day to day and look out for each other. Some days, it’s really tough and emotions get high. The main thing is to look out for each other and our friends.
Is there anything else you would like people to know?
There’s so many vacant buildings around; the SEARS building, J.C. Penny building, and they’re sitting there useless and being used for nothing. These buildings could be converted and made as viable places for people to make an income off it. A lot of people say, “The homeless should just go to jail.” That’s the way it seems from what I’ve been reading in the paper. Why not take these empty buildings and make them work? One thing I’ve been trying to tell people is to convert them into little apartments with a common area and people who can’t afford it, volunteer, clean, do whatever. I know the buildings are privately owned, but they just sit there empty. I haven’t been able to get this idea through to anyone yet. In the winter time, there’s the warming shelter and Salvation Army where you have to leave at a certain time, so what do you do? You sit and drink alcohol because there’s nothing else to do. You try to kill the pain and suffering and you can try to volunteer, but it doesn’t help if you’re not getting paid and doesn’t get you out of the situation. It’s a circle that doesn’t end and to me, is like watching NASCAR; all left turns, but if you want out of the race, take a right turn. We are just constantly going in a circle with no out. A lot of us do have incomes, but we can’t afford to move into a place. In order to move into a place, it would cost me $1,200 to $1,400 for first and last month’s rent. They won’t let you space out the amount. Hopefully, this will end soon because something needs to be done. The paper says there’s 37 homeless people, but I can name more than 37. There’s probably 300 to 400 of us who may couch surf and go from place to place, but there’s hundreds of us and society doesn’t realize that. Something needs to be done in this town, but all anyone wants is to put us in jail to get us off the street. They don’t care where they put us and that needs to change.
Do you still have family in the area?
The only thing I have is one sister.
Are you able to communicate with her?
I haven’t been able to for the last year because every time I try to call her, I get a goofy sound like it’s trying to connect to a computer. I have not talked to her for about a year now.
What is your motivation to face another day?
Live one more day. My motivation is that I want my home back. I want a house and my life back. I keep trying, but when you’re beat down all the time, it’s hard.