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People on the Street | William McGee

William McGee has struggled to find meaning in a life where the next day is never guaranteed. But, through self-reflection, he’s been able to see himself, and the world around him, differently.

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People on the Street | Damon Eubanks

Damon Eubanks was born with an active imagination. He developed a passion for travel and an appreciation for experiences, qualities that have allowed him to follow his dreams as an adult.

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People on the Street | Mariah Spencer

Mariah Spencer dreams of becoming a film director — a goal she is determined to achieve — but that doesn’t keep her from sacrificing time to care for her mother, a disabled military veteran.

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“I’m homeless but not hopeless”

The sun relentlessly beams down from a cloudless sky while squawking seagulls circle and descend to pick at half-eaten remains, thoughtlessly discarded in a downtown alleyway. Sitting on a white stoop nearby is Brian Anders (pseudonym). He wears a dark brown T-shirt, rain jacket and black cut-off jean shorts. His cocoa-colored eyes, which restlessly survey the surrounding bustle, pair with a innocent smile.

“People judge the people out here who act crazy, but they don’t have nobody to talk to,” says Brian. “They went crazy. They didn’t just wake up crazy. It was a day by day gradual thing.”

Anders, the oldest of two, was born in San Diego. His mother and father met at a U.S Navy boot camp and relocated to the South Side of Milwaukee in 2001 to take care of his grandma who was fighting cancer. She passed six years later.

From his grandma’s house, Brian and his family moved three more times, as they became better off. He went on to graduate from Bay View High School in 2011, the same year his parents filed for a divorce.

The separation wasn’t much of a surprise.

“We kind of knew they wanted a divorce growing up but they stayed together longer for my little brother,” he says.

Since then, much has changed for Brian.

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Anders talks to his brother, who lives with their father in West Allis, every day. But his relationship with his parents is strained. As he’s gotten older, Brian, who grew up Christian, has distanced himself from the strict tradition he was raised in.

“I always had questions,” he says. “When we were in church, I would ask the teacher but they never had an answer for me so I had to read more stuff. They said not to read other stuff because that’s the devil attacking you and all of that. But that don’t make sense to me so I just read more.”

Brian has continued to ask questions about the meaning of life and death, and the different perspectives people have. Three years ago he lost his apartment, which changed his outlook on life. He was evicted because of a loan that put him in a bad position, but, these days, he’s homeless by choice despite holding down two jobs.

Anders says being homeless isn’t easy but he views it as a learning experience.

“For me it’s like a growth thing. If you put yourself in situations for yourself to grow you don’t have to compare yourself to other people — you know for a fact you can get out of that situation,” he says. “I don’t care how people view me because I know how I feel about myself.”

He plans to create a guitar album and publish a book of his poetry, two things he’s been passionate about from an early age. He also plans to move back to California.

“I want to sit outside and not have to worry about it being cold or snowy all the time,” Brian says. “You gotta go far from certain areas to go see nice looking landscapes in Milwaukee. But if you go to California, it’s beaches, it’s mountains, it’s everything in a concentrated area.”

“I know for a fact I am not going to be doing the same thing one year from now,” he says.

“But in the meantime I am out here talking to people who people don’t talk to.”⬩

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Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help.

“I love Milwaukee”

On an unusually cool July afternoon, Lavelle Kyles sits alongside the glass-encased bus shelter on the corner of 76th and Mill Road waiting for the route 67 bus. The sun beams on the Navy baseball cap that shields his sepia colored eyes.

“I love Milwaukee, that’s why I won’t go back to Louisiana …” He bears a half-smile and corrects himself. “… except I am going back there next month for a family reunion.”

Lavelle was born in Monroe, Louisiana, but came to Milwaukee at age 6.

“I was running around,” he recalls. “We had a fireplace and a heater in the bathroom and my pajamas caught fire.”

His parents decided to relocate about a year after the incident.

In Milwaukee, Kyles was enrolled in LaFollette Elementary and Fulton Middle School (later renamed Malcolm X Academy). He went on to Rufus King High School and ended up joining the military in 1973. Lavelle served in the Navy for a year. Not too long after returning, he moved back to The South in 1977.

He held his own back in Louisiana for years until another family emergency, when his father had a stroke.

“He wanted to come back up here, so we drove up …” he says. “We traveled back and forth all the time with each other.”

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Years down the line, at 56, Lavelle says that he “fell on bad luck and hard times.” Facing homelessness, he sought out help from Vets Place Central, which offers transitional housing to elderly or disabled veterans.

“I’ve been at my residence now for five years,” Kyles says. “That was a hand up for me.”

He laments about hearing that more homeless veteran facilities are closing down.

As his bus appears over the hill, moving lackadaisically down 76th Street, Lavelle waits in his black and white wheelchair. Kyles, an avid cyclist, was injured about a month before. Some might be angry but he just sits, hands relaxed in his lap, as nonchalant as city bus coming his way.

He concludes, “I am here and here to stay.”⬩

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Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help.

“I call myself a traveler”

Anthony Olden saunters down West Wells Street, a good friend close by his side. His wide smile and carefree nature imbue Olden with an air of unflappable joviality.

“I wanna open a rec. center for my peoples — that’s what I’m savin’ my money for, man, for this city. Before I die or somebody kills me, I want my people to be like, ‘Hey, that man, he left us all somethin’ behind.’”

“You gotta give back, man. If you don’t give back, you’re just — you’re washed up,” he says. “You don’t make no name for yourself if you don’t give back.”

Anthony grew up on the east side of Milwaukee, near Buffum and North. Despite being the youngest of seven, he hasn’t been handed much.

“You don’t get a job you starve, you know?” says Olden “That’s just the way I came up, boss — that’s the [only way] I can put it to ya.”

His dad was around “at times” but it “wasn’t no everyday thing,” he says with a smile and a laugh. “My dad pretty much like me — no job, gotta do what I got do not to starve,” he says.

“Beautiful” and “loving” are words he uses to describe his mother. “She took in families,” he says. About 14 years ago, she became diabetic but survived for more than a decade with Anthony’s help. Three years ago, she passed.

Olden says the experience taught him the value of helping others, but it also taught him to let go.

“No matter how much we love, or how strong we love, your love gotta go at some time,” he says. “But don’t let it take the best ‘a you, or get the best ‘a you.”

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Frederick Douglass, 22nd Street School, Hamilton and Washington are just a few of the schools Olden attended. “I couldn’t stay still,” he says. “You know, just got tired of the environment.”

“Seein’ the same pictures, the same walls. It’s like, ‘I wanna see what this school is like.’”

Eventually, he ended up at Transition High School on 27th and North. This was the place that finally kept his attention. Olden, who calls the environment there “caffeinated,” worked in a bike shop, participated in nature outings and meditation groups, helped out at a church, and worked at a nursing home in addition to his schooling.

“That’s where I found myself,” he says of the nursing home.

Because he’d been helping his mom for years he “fit right in.” He got a certificate from Independence First and acted as an official caretaker for his mother before she passed.

These days, Anthony works a lot of gigs to keep the bills paid — junking, scrapping, washing cars, landscaping and tree maintenance — essentially, whatever work he can find. He works demolition, too, from time to time, which helps him channel his anger in a positive way.

Someday, he hopes his children — he has four and one on the way — will take care of him the way he did his mother. He looks forward to seeing the seeds he’s planted in them sprout.

This is the same reason he wants to build a center. It won’t just be for recreation — Anthony envisions it as a home away from home, as a place anyone can go whenever they need to. And, he wants it to be totally free.

“I don’t feel everything should be based upon evilness,” says Olden.

“Money makes people forget where they came from. It takes the soul from ‘em, eats up the kindness and turns ‘em into a monster. I’ve seen it happen. Twenty-four years in this city — I’ve seen it happen.”

He views things a little differently.

“I breathe this air and I get along with the grass; I blend in with the raccoons and the squirrels.

“And we all lookin’ for nuts.”⬩

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Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help.

Podcast: Zeynab Ali

Zeynab Ali, a Somali refugee, author and local activist, talks about her experience growing up in Dadaab, Kenya, the largest refugee camp in the world. Ali, 18, stresses the importance of listening to people’s stories, speaking up against injustice and including the youth in solving the issues that confront us.

“Anyone who’s in need, whether it’s someone going through poverty or just someone having a conflict, you should always be there for those folks and address the issues they’re facing.”

She adds, “You never know a person’s story just by the behavior that they portray. You really have to get to know a person and see where they’re coming from.”

Listen below, or on Soundcloud.

Music by Pharaoh Mac & DMT

You can find Zeynab’s book, “Cataclysm: Secrets of the Horn of Africa,” on Amazon.

Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that brings you the real stories of regular people. This work is supported by small, individual monthly contributions from people just like you; we need your help.