Aaliyah Sharif stands in front of a table in Bolton Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. While other students hurry past her on their way to classes, Sharif, a sophomore, is focused on building a little house out of a single piece of white paper. As she tapes two edges together to form a roof, Sharif glances at the Habitat for Humanity sign on the front of the table and sort of smiles.
Sharif is a member of UW-Milwaukee’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity. This Friday, April 7, starting at 5:00 p.m., she will be joining other student organizations, Greek societies, and members of the community to build a cardboard shelter in UWM’s Spaights Plaza as part of Habitat for Humanity’s annual Shantytown. Participants in the event will then sleep in their constructed shelters overnight to draw attention to the shortage of decent housing in areas of Milwaukee.
“This year, it’s more exciting,” Sharif said. “We’ve gotten a lot more advertising this year. In the past, it’s been just Habitat people, so people in the club, but this year we’re involving other student organizations. There’s more hype.”
This “hype” is exactly what the UWM chapter of Habitat is hoping to generate. With Shantytown, they seek to raise awareness for Milwaukee’s need for safer, more reliable housing. One in six families in the city spend at least half of their income on rent, and many people are living in unsafe and overcrowded conditions.
The nonprofit organization has constructed or repaired over 500 homes throughout the Milwaukee since it was established here in 1984. Their Shantytown initiative is used by college campus Habitat chapters throughout the U.S., including at UWM.
“For the past few years, the UWM Habitat chapter has conducted a smaller-scale cardboard sleep-out,” Brandt said. “This year, they have partnered with Milwaukee Habitat as well as the Milwaukee Habitat Young Professionals group to help raise more awareness to the program,” said Jake Brandt, Milwaukee Habitat’s Marketing, and Communications Manager.
The Young Professionals Program, known as “HYP,” is an extension of Habitat for Humanity that looks to brings resourceful young professionals together through coordinated fundraising, advocacy, volunteerism, community involvement, and social networking events, according to Habitat’s HYP webpage.
In addition to the event taking place on April 7th and 8th, Shantytown participants have been fundraising using Classy, a “fundraising program for social impact organizations”. They hope to raise $10,000, and all of the money that they receive will be used to build new single-family homes in Milwaukee or to repair existing homes.
Brandt, who is working with Milwaukee Habitat to provide resources and direction to event participants, hopes that Shantytown will teach students how dire the housing disparity is in some areas of Milwaukee, and will show them how, by coming together as a community, Milwaukee families can help to build better lives for themselves.
“ Too many families in Milwaukee are living in substandard housing, paying more than half of their income in rent, he said. “Affordable home ownership helps families build equity, provide a safe living environment for their children, and creates self-reliance.”
The Habitat for Humanity building model is unique. Called “sweat-equity,” the families receiving Habitat houses contribute between 285 and 495 hours working with volunteers, like those at the UWM chapter, to help build their own houses and houses for other people in their neighborhood. This group-work strategy stimulates a sense of community among neighbors, uniting them under a sense of accomplishment.
“Habitat homes are a hand up, rather than a handout, empowering families to build better lives for themselves and their families through affordable shelter,” said Brandt.
He hopes that Shantytown participants will feel a similar sense of community that will last even after the cardboard shelters are taken down, and will understand how instrumental they are in strengthening the Milwaukee community.
Brandt summed up, “These students will help families in need of affordable housing build the strength, stability and independence they need for a brighter future.”